Monday, 12 May 2014

How Glasgow Flourished. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

How Glasgow Flourished  1714-1837. New temporary exhibition Apr-Aug 2014, Kelvingrove Art Gallery

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in the west end of Glasgow houses a great civic collection of artefacts and art. Before it opened in 1901 the city's art collection was on show in the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street, a lovely and (sadly) largely unused space. Since then it has has shared the Kelvingrove building with an eclectic and slightly random collection of stuff. There is everything from Egyptian mummies, to a Spitfire plane, paintings from Rembrandt to Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross.

As a child we came here often and when my first son was a toddler we seemed to wander the galleries on a weekly basis. After extensive refurbishment it re-opened in 2006 to general critical approval, but my warmth for it had faded a bit. I missed the dusty old cases of fossils, it seemed slightly dumbed down, the paintings didn't seem as well hung now. It was more obviously set up to earn a bit of money on the side, whereas in the past it felt like a precious gift which our benevolent, philanthropic forefathers left to us. I have just never visited it as much with my younger children, and rarely wander in on my own now. I don't feel the same connection to it. The cafe in the main hall breaks up the splendour a bit of this grand space and the new temporary exhibition area downstairs showed that making some money from the building seemed to be an essential function of the new version of the Arty Garties.

A common sight in Kelvingrove in recent years

The reason that I wrote my first blog here was in a fit of pique after a visit with my kids where, only a few years after the re-refurbishment, the exhibits all seemed neglected and in need of repair. The majority of the fun, new interactive exhibits were broken or shabby and the lack of ongoing investment in its maintenance was obvious. I was angry, as like many other Glaswegians who loved the old place I had chipped in some money towards the refit, with our names on display in the main hall. 

One thing the museum seemed to lack was any great connection to Glasgow, it could have been anyone's museum. There was the Mackintosh furniture and many a Scottish artist on show, but the room specifically about Glasgow was a curious hotch potch of exhibits. There was a big thing about Catholic/ Protestant sectarianism and the Old Firm, a section on alcoholism and domestic abuse and at the back of this same room a couple of broken machines about James Watt devising "horsepower". These things may all be aspects of the city, but for visitors meeting us for the first time, that's a confusing barrage of themes? A board in this room for people to add their own thoughts about Glasgow on a postcard was badly maintained and after a few weeks never seemed to have any cards or pencils to allow you to join in the fun. Did this reflect the feedback they were getting?

In recent weeks it is clear that there has been a realisation that this was not on. There has been a series of repairs and rooms throughout Kelvingrove Art Gallery which were getting a bit shabby and tired have been improved.

How Glasgow Flourished 

Presumably with the imminent arrival of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow the temporary exhibition space downstairs has been given over to an exhibition dedicated to Glasgow itself. Titled "How Glasgow Flourished 1714-1837" it aims to tell the story of how Georgian Glasgow expanded and changed from quiet rural town, to great industrial city. A bonus is that it is FREE (is this a first for an exhibition down there?) which makes a pleasant change.

Entering the exhibition we are met with the great and the good of Glasgow's merchant classes. We have the "Tontine Heads" showing the links to the tobacco trade, information about the foundation of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Allan Ramsay's excellent portrait of the Duke of Argyll (immortalised in a city centre street name). Andrew Cochrane, several times Lord Provost of the city is a more complicated character than you'd know from seeing his portrait here. No mention is made of his Virginia plantations or ownership of the King Street Sugarhouse. Nor is there any mention of the fact that he was a Hanoverian supporting Provost when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his 6000 strong army arrived in the city in 1745 demanding accommodation, food and clothing. This is a recurrent problem with the exhibition. It purports to tell 120 years of the history of the city but manages to completely remove it from any historical context or narrative. There is no sense of a city, of a world, changing through this period. Also apart from the wealthy merchants almost no real people intrude upon the displays, which is strangely at odds with Glasgow's current branding "People Make Glasgow".

Family History

In the publicity surrounding the displays they come back to the idea that
A recurring theme throughout the exhibition is family history, showing how you can make connections with your life and family to the history of this wonderful city, through our incredible museum and archives collections
I presume they are hoping that visitors coming to Glasgow to see the Commonwealth Games may linger because their ancestors originated here, before spreading to the far reaches of the Empire. Whilst you are here why not stay a while and seek out your ancestors?

That seems a logical enough premise, so throughout the exhibition we come back to one family in particular, the Glassfords. Are this mob the type of family we want to connect ourselves with? I've done a bit of family history research myself, and of my relatives living in the west of Scotland at that time none were "multimillionaire businessmen" as he is described, but they certainly helped Glasgow flourish. I know my link to several Georgian servants in Glasgow, 3 or 4 weavers, 2 labourers, a stonemason, a tinsmith, a miller, a draper's hawker, a joiner, a blacksmith and a ship's pilot.

It just feels a very old fashioned way to tell history, although instead of learning history through kings and queens we are here shown Glasgow's history through the life of the merchant classes. There are rooms of their portraits and recreated front rooms, hunting jackets, Chippendale furniture and punch bowls.

Instead of being met at the entrance by the buxom stone sphinxes "which may have been from the Shawfield mansion of millionaire merchant John Glassford" I would rather know who made them, which sculptor, craftsman (even my relative, the stonemason). Are visitors from the Commonwealth not more likely to be the descendants of Glaswegian factory workers, sailors or miners or even the descendants of slaves labouring for the Glassfords and their ilk in the plantations? Why do we have a Clydesdale National Park in Jamaica visitors from that island may be pondering. Did my ancestors' sweat generate the wealth we are being impressed with here?

Portraits of John Glassford's second wife and a daughter stand in the final room. Sad though it is that his wife died in childbirth, I'd also be fascinated to hear what happened to infant mortality rates in the Calton between 1714 and 1837. That could tell a story about who was flourishing as Glasgow industrialised.


I have previously written about Glasgow's connections to the slave trade as it is a link that is rarely made it the history of the city which we tell ourselves. During the Commonwealth Games "The Empire Cafe" will specifically explore this area and as the city's wealth during the Georgian period was almost entirely founded on the work of slaves in Virginia and the Caribbean there is some acknowledgement of this in the exhibition. However I do really think it is a polite recognition of it, rather than any serious analysis. Whereas we have rooms showing us the style and opulence of the Tobacco Lords way of life, we have half of a glass case on the topic of slavery.

Slaves did all the work so get the right hand half of this
glass case devoted to them
The famous portrait of the Glassford family by Archibald McLauchlan which normally hangs in the People's Palace is on display here. Whilst there is comment beside the picture about the face of his third wife having been painted over that of his second wife, no mention is made of the black boy that can be seen standing behind this family in their 1768 Glasgow mansion. Other allusions to the plantations and the slave system are hinted at without being clearly explored. In the section on Glasgow industry we read about
Glasgow factories produced everyday necessities for plantation stores
On a section talking about the growing iron industry in Glasgow we can read that
Ships were laden with cargoes of nails, spades, shovels, picks and ploughs to produce more tobacco, sugar and cotton
You only need to think about that for a second to see that factories were growing, were profitting and becoming mechanised by providing materials for slave owners to use to earn greater profits for merchants in Glasgow who then invested in land, railways and new docks. I just think it is negligent to underplay the importance of slavery, or even the massive compensation payments to Scottish plantation owners when abolition came into effect, in the growth and industrialisation of Glasgow at this time.

At a time when Scotland's population was a fifth of what it is today, between 1750 and 1800, 15-20,000 Scots emigrated to the Caribbean where they worked at every level of the slave trade, as overseers, financiers, suppliers, bookkeepers and as slave plantation owners.


Appropriately there are sections on mining, iron working and weaving, but as elsewhere in the exhibition they seem strangely out of context or lacking in any chronological continuity. There is a painting of a Woodside mill, an area I know well and would find it impossible from the display here to imagine where in Woodside this used to sit. James Watt gets a mention (I have written previously about his time in Glasgow) but again you would be hard pressed to see how closely he was connected with Glasgow and the University from the exhibits here. Also one of the things my inner geek came along expecting to see, a model of his Newcomen engine, the steam engine that drove the industrial revolution, is not yet installed in the exhibition! Eh? 

The sections on the workers and daily life seem rather uninspiring and sadly there are inaccuracies here. There is a wee painting of a school at "Goat Burn". Why not give a bit more context and point out where the Goat Burn ran, near Partick (where the Goat pub stood until it was recently re-named)?

The sign talking about the Calton Weavers' strike and massacre has a small photo of Ken Currie's painting on the subject from the People's Palace, but bizarrely gets the date wrong. It states that it happened on 3rd September 1789, but in fact it was 2 years earlier in 1787, before even the French were revolting. For Glasgow's premier museum to make such a schoolboy error about an important event in the history of Glasgow's workers just seems to show a lack of care and attention.

The whole exhibition has some interesting stuff but just feels a bit thrown together. It's as if different people were asked "Right, you get together three rooms of stuff about the Tobacco Lords, you do a corner on weaving and you have that wee sideroom for 'other industries'. Now, what can we do with this 'Partick Drum'?"

Glasgow Stories

I am happy to accept any accusations that I am nit-picking. There was lots of great things on show here. I liked the old flyers for events in Glasgow Green at the Fair, the old maps such as of Garscube Estate and fantastic old paintings of Glasgow streetscapes. I just would have liked to see more connections to Glasgow today, more historical context and narrative. On only one occasion, at the exit, is an old print put beside a modern photo of a street. However the way it is done, with the old print looking south on Buchanan Street and the modern photo looking north-west, it makes them impossible to compare. In fact the photo used is the exact same, stock photo that is on display upstairs in the newly laid out "Glasgow Stories" room.

View of Glasgow and the Cathedral about 1840 by John Plimmer Houston
and the same view today. All the smoking chimneys and industry seem to have gone

I am happy to say that the new improved lay out for this room just off the main hall upstairs is a vast improvement on what went before. Upstairs I think they get right some of the things which are a bit lacking in the temporary exhibition downstairs. In a single room they now show pre-historic Glasgow, Victorian Glasgow, an old painting from the necropolis showing the smoking chimneys of industrial Glasgow, trade unionism, 10th century stonework from the cathedral and modern artists from the city.

Best of all, instead of all the guff about sectarianism we have a nice 1888 photo of Glasgow's finest football team, Partick Thistle. THAT is what visitors to our city should be getting told about. 

Partick Thistle team 1888-1889

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece Glasgow Punter. The way the Exhibition deals with the West Indian slave plantations - acknowledging them while sidelining them - is a common way of dealing with the issue. Not quite as offensive as the poster in Glassford St praising the 'entrepreneurial' spirit of the Tobacco Lords but still somewhat detached from reality.