Alasdair Gray, 'Picture Making - Infancy To Art School, 1937 - 1954' (Free Association, 10/2007)

I was born at the end of 1934 in Riddrie which with Knightswood was one of the earliest, best designed and poshest of Glasgow housing schemes. Houses in Riddrie were allocated to teachers, shopkeepers, clerks, nurses, postmen and men like my dad who had factory jobs during the depression years when nearly a quarter of Glasgow was unemployed. Like many British folk I assumed for years that I was Upper Middle Class. Apart from politicians mentioned in BBC new broadcasts I knew of nobody socially superior to my dad, whose hobbies included unpaid work for the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, a local branch of the Camping Club of Great Britain and the Holiday Fellowship. Through one of these organisations he knew Glasgow’s deputy town clerk who lived in a semi-detached corporation house, just like my grandfathers nearby, but a bit higher up the Cumbernauld Road. Like most of our neighbours I was a snob, one of a superior class to the proles of Blackhill, widely known as a slum clearance scheme divided from Riddrie by the Monkland Canal: now the Monkland motorway.

At least two years before attending Riddrie Primary School my parents gave me coloured pencils and paper and like me to use them. I enjoyed using them and was so lucky with my primary and secondary school teachers that they liked instead f discouraging my picture-making. My first art exemplars had been book illustrators, mainly illustrations by authors who had written the books – Rudyard Kipling’s in the Just So Stories, Hugh Lofting’s in the Doctor Dolottle books, Tolken’s in The Hobbit. The worlds in these pictures had fantastic historical and geographical scope that chimed perfectly with Walt Disney and Wizard of Oz films, and Peter Pan and Christmas pantomimes on stage. Chiefly in literary books I had discovered the poetry and paintings of William Blake – Bosch’s Hell, sinister Garden of Eden and exuberant Garden of Earthly Delights – Breughel’s encyclopaedias of medieval, biblical humanity, including his Tower of Babel and Triumph of Death – the exactly-balanced white and black and patterned areas of Beardsley’s erotic worlds – yes, four of my favourite artists had names starting with B.

Norwegian Munch was the first great modern artist whose paintings I saw on their original canvases. He died in 1944 when was nine, and about ten years later a great exhibition of his life’s work filled at least three upstairs galleries of Kelvingrove Museum. I was then at Whitehall Secondary School and seeing all the great Munchs at exactly the right time.

Like many adolescents, maybe most, I was finding life a terrible business. Though not unusually lonely, and with no doubt of my ability to paint anything interesting I imagined, I feared I could give no girl enough sexual pleasure for her to give me any back: an attitude only overcome (a little) in my late twenties, when I met a woman who decided to marry me. My teenage longing for sensual and romantic love was not relieved by masturbation which induced guilt. Frustration and guilt also alternated with eczema of the face and joints and bouts of asthma. I also worried about passing the Latin and Maths exams that would get me into Glasgow University. I hated these subjects – thought it harmful for anyone to live well by studying what they did not enjoy - but my mum, dad and teachers were sure that a working class Scot (yes, I had at last accepted that I belonged to the working class) could only win the freedom to write and paint by first earning a secure income by doing something else. Bodily health made manual labour and factory work impossible for me. A university degree would allow a library or civil service job. That prospect struck me as equally loathsome. MEANWHILE, despite Britain having been on the winning side of a war that would have made all Europe a hell had Hitler won, wars were still being fought and nuclear wars industriously prepared by all the biggest civilised nations whose governments, while building huge nuclear bunkers for themselves, were telling heir populations that there was nothing to worry about. The world was obviously in as bad a state as I was. Both of us seemed heading for an even worse future.

How wonderful to discover the works of a Norwegian artist who had lived in the industrial capital city of a modern nation smaller than Scotland – who painted it as an arena of loneliness and sexual tension and disease, yet saw it as grand and tragic – not boring or trivial, which was almost the worst thing I feared life could become. But help was on the way. Half my infancy was passed under a coalition government so keen to beat Hitler’s Nazi empire that it turned Britain into a Welfare State using Socialist measures previous British governments had rejected as revolutionary. In 1944 its last great act allowed anyone to get higher college educations if they passed their entrance exams: those whose parents could not pay for their food and housing while studying were funded (like civil servants, soldiers and royalty) out of the public purse. In 1952 my father learned that this good act would let me enter Glasgow School of Art which I now wanted to enter for a very particular reason. With no doubt of my ability, and with a knack of adequately representing facial expressions I had no training in drawing the naked human body, which I thought essential to great drawing and painting. Perhaps Blake’s great mastery of figure drawing had been got by engraving copies of copies of Michelangelo’s frescos, but I believed I could only get mine in the kinds of studio where Delaquoix, Ingeres, Manet, Matisse and Stanley Spencer had learned to draw.

In the fifties a four year art school training began with a two year general course which included mornings of drawing and afternoons when we had a basic training in architecture, art history, clay modelling, graphic illustration and a craft (etching or woodcut or lithography or puppetry or ceramics or textile design) that we could change from session to session. We were also given a subject for a monthly painting to be made in the evenings or at weekends in the medium of our choice – watercolour or gauche on paper, oil paint on card or canvas. This monthly painting became my favourite art school work, especially in the first year when we were not allowed to draw from life models, clothed or nude, but only from geometric solids or plaster casts. At the end of each month the pictures were hung on screens in the Art School assembly hall for everyone to see, and for a teacher to criticise. My health still being conspicuously bad, I caged many days painting at home by pretending it was worse. The given subject usually began by annoying me with its banality: An Incident in the Summer Holidays was the first, then Washing Day. In January 1953 it was an illustration to Tam O Shanter. I wanted to paint miraculous or highly emotional biblical events in a modern Glasgow setting, but now know that the task of making interesting compositions out of something that, on first hearing, sounded dull was, in fact, a good intellectual and artistic exercise.

The results aroused interested comments from fellow students but hardly a word from the teaching staff. Their comments seldom went further than: ‘Very interesting. You certainly put a lot of work into it.’ My paintings were stylistically Post-Impressionist. In the wonderful library Macintosh had designed, which was then fully used by the students not as a tourist’s art nouveau exhibit, I brooded or rather fed on bright Skira publications showing the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin, with the prints of Hohusai and Hiroshige who had influenced them: also Chagal, Modigliani, Soutine, Italian Futurists and German Expressionists. In those days Cezanne bored me – he was too classical, to interested in the unextravagent appleness of apples, treeness of trees, peopleness of people to excite someone who wanted painting to show something more Heavenly or Hellish, more dramatic than it normally appears. Yet at one monthly composition show Willie Armour, a painting teacher, told us Cezanne might have become a good painter if a good optician had given him the right spectacles.

The state of Glasgow School of Art teaching in the fifties needs some more social history to make sense.

Around 1900 Glasgow had more than one group of painters and designers with international reputations, one of them connected with Glasgow Art School. Like their contemporaries in England, France and Germany, artists of the Scottish Middle West mostly inherited family fortunes yet still earned good money from their sales. Their work was hung and sold in London and European galleries, yet they were respected and discussed by an informed Glasgow public before, not after selling abroad. Dying Whistler willed his unsold work to the Glasgow Hunterian Museum because he preferred Glasgow to London as a respecter of modern painting. Yet after the First World War, most young Scots who showed artistic talent were told by their teachers, ‘Of course you’ll never make a living by art in Scotland,’ and for almost sixty years that was almost an absolute truth. Talented moderns like Colquoun and McBride went south. Artists who remained became domains or hermits. The domaines painted between teaching. Some, like Cowie, kept their talent bright and effective but produced a fraction of their potential while the art of the rest became stale and dated though most of them dominated Scotland’s art schools and official exhibitions. Not all of these were poor painters. Duncan McMillan’s book on 20th Century Scottish painting shows several fascinating single works, but the dominaines’ prevailing style was a kind of academic late Impressionism. The hermits shrank into eccentric seclusion. Only Joaqn Eardley had a small private income letting her develop her art to the full. Most were se poor that their talent inflicted them like an incurable disease. I am thinking of Joan’s friend Angus Neill, Angus’ friend Carole Gibbons, with Alasdair Taylor, John Connolly and others my readers have never heard of. In the late sixties a sort of artist appeared who was neither émigré, domaine nor hermit but supported his pictorial work by part-time literary jobs. I say ‘his; because the only artists of this sort I know are John Byrne and me. But an informed Scottish public for modern Scottish art – or any kind of modern art – had almost vanished. Why?

The catastrophe that had befallen our art was the same that had felled other Scottish industries. Glasgow’s golden age was before the First World War, in boom years when the British Admiralty had most of its battleships built on Clydeside, when St Rollocks Railway Works were selling steam trains to South America and Templetons of Bridgeton were designing and weaving carpets for transatlantic liners and Canadian state parliament houses. Glasgow’s electric street lighting, telephone system and public transport were then so advanced that those incharge were invited to the USA and South America by local governments who wanted to learn how such things should be managed. Then came post-war depression. The Scottish Independent Socialist Party, mainly based in Glasgow, became in 1924 a strong part of Britain’s first Labour government. Both of these events moved the biggest owners of British capital to concentrate it in South Britain to invest it abroad. So Scottish investors also lost confidence in their homeland as a place where good things could originate. This, of course, affected Glasgow’s art dealers.

Before 1914 Glasgow had several dealers who promoted modern Scottish painting abroad while importing modern French and German work. Of course the war interrupted this trade but Annan and Reid, successful dealers, were still here at the end of it, but too busily employed by Sir William Burrell to give new Scottish pictures much attention. The war had made Sir William a multi-millionaire by letting him sell his merchant shipping fleet to the Australian government, retire from business, and spend the rest of his life building up one of the biggest private art collections in Europe, a collection finally bequeathed to Glasgow’s municipal government. This collection contains work looted from Europe, Africa and Asia – so mainly medieval tapestries, carvings and stained glass windows, so many Chinese and Egyptian artefacts, so many Arabic carpets and 19th century paintings that the Burrell Gallery can only exhibit a quarter of them. It contains nothing Scottish. Cargill, the other Glasgow millionaire collector, was equally uninterested in local products.

When C.R. Macintosh was painting his finest watercolours in France – when John Quintin Pringle was producing small amazing definite Post-Impressionist oils on what he earned behind the counter of his optical instrument shop in the Trongate – Glasgow dealers and a Glasgow art public had forgotten or never knew they existed.

So after the Second World War Annan’s great Sauchiehall Street art gallery with Michaelangelesque statues on its splendidly-designed fa?ßade becomes the recruiting office it is still. The domaine painters who taught in Glasgow Art School had no sense at all of a living Scottish tradition that, at a fine academic level, descended through Ramsay and Reeburn, Wilkie and such landscape painters as Knox, Horatio McCulloch and Sam Bough, the Glasgow Boys – a few girls also! – fine colourists like Pelpo and J.D. Fergusson. Having hardly any idea of their own best predecessors they passed on no idea of a vital Scottish tradition to their students. The liveliest students among my contemporaries (of course I took it for granted that I was one) knew there was something timid and wrong about the teaching we received – felt that Scottish painting would have to be invented from the start by ourselves! Dear me, how ignorant we were.

Alasdair Gray, born in Glasgow 1934, received a diploma in Mural Art and Design from Glasgow School of Art in 1957, and has since lived by painting and writing several kinds of things, being unable to live by any one.

This is an extract from A Life in Pictures, to be published by Cannongate in 2007.