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

Tectonics Festival Glasgow, 2014

Review Tectonics Festival, Glasgow, May 2014

The Tectonics Festival returned to Glasgow for a second year this weekend. Originally devised by conductor Ilan Volkov with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in Rekyavik, he brought it to Glasgow last year. Since then it has grown arms and legs and been a platform for local and international, experimental and modern classical music in Adelaide, Tel Aviv and this year, New York.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The programme this year did not jump out at me the way it did last year. I don't think I was alone in finding this, as audience numbers, although decent, seemed a wee bit down on last year's. I wasn't really familiar with any of the composers being performed. However, Volkov with his previous Tectonics programme and the free "Hear and Now" concerts which he still performs with the BBC SSO for Radio 3, is always a reliable guide. This meant that I was happy to be led by his reliable judgement. The Glasgow based BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have surely became one of the world's foremost interpreters of modern classical music. This weekend they were again given the opportunity to perform musical notation which at times can have more in common with a child's drawing book than a traditional orchestral score.

I wasn't able to attend the opening concert at St Andrew's in the Square, featuring many of the artists and composers who'd be performing across the weekend. With Bill Wells, Thurston Moore, Takehisa Kosugi and Richard Youngs amongst others on show, I was sorry to miss it.

Saturday night started with the BBC SSO, led by Volkov, performing French-born American composer, Christian Wolff's Ordinary Matter (version for two orchestras). Visually and aurally it was an interesting proposition as the counterpoint ebbed and flowed between the orchestra, split down the centre of the stage and led by separate conductors. It was slow, creeping and creaking. A high point was the to-ing and fro-ing between the pizzicato violin on the left and harp on the right.

A new BBC commission "'d love to turn by John Oswald was next up, a lighter affair. At times it was familiar, almost bursting into The Beatles "A Day In The Life" at one point, but with more assault on the piano strings in the style of Tom and Jerry. It ended with a moment of coitus interruptus, as the two percussionists raised their cymbals, then failed to climax.

The falling and rising strings of David Behrman's How We Got Here was a gentler affair, being swept away by Georg Friedrich Hass's more grandiose pieces following it. These were the highlights of the evening, with droning strings and brass, full of bombast in the Concerto Grosso No.2 for ensemble and orchestra. This was followed by his Saxaphone Concerto, with Swiss saxophonist Marcus Weiss playing in front of the dark tones of the full orchestra with his baritone sax.

Sarah Kenchington's Sounds From The Farmyard

In the interval we were ushered to the recital room where beautiful Heath Robinson style instruments constructed by Sarah Kenchington awaited our input. As shy Britons we gamely pottered about with them, deigning not to speak to one another or work together (the pipes were never going to work until someone decided to work the bellows). As the evening wore on people were more willing to give it a go. I couldn't help thinking that a bunch of kids would have made more "Sounds From The Farmyard" from it.

Muscles of Joy in The Fruitmaket

Set up next on the floor of The Fruitmarket were Muscles of Joy, a Glasgow band who I've seen before, supporting Tuneyards in Oran Mor. As before I found them interesting if a bit unengaging. They did highlight the gap in genders though as many of the performers, like them, were women whilst most of the pieces played over the weekend were composed or conducted by men. Perhaps it is a generational thing, as there were, particularly on the Sunday, several compositions by younger women.

Four men stare into a piano (whilst performing Behrman'sWavetrain

Back to City Halls where Icelandic composer/performer outfit S.L.Á.T.U.R. took us through Christian Wolff's Metal and Breath (where they either made noises with bits of metal...or their breath). Then Wolff's piece For One, Two or Three People was performed quietly by Wolff, Behrman and Kosugi. Their deferential respect for each other stole some dynamism from the piece. David Behrman's Wavetrain was excellent though, where Wolff, Behrman and Kosugi were joined by Volkov to place pick-ups on the strings of the prepared grand piano and play with the feedback.

Feedback was the watchword in The Fruitmarket for the late concert. Thurston Moore (off of Sonic Youth) wrestled with his guitar whilst Dylan Nyoukis provided accompanying noise and voice. I was amused to see the contrast between someone's child happily playing about to the noise produced and the older attendant from the halls standing behind the musicians with eyebrows more scornfully raised.  There are links appearing here, as Sonic Youth at times played the music of Christian Wolff . Scottish musician Gordon Sharp finished off the evening with his band Cindytalk.

Sunday's programme ran from 3pm until 10.30pm. One problem with this, as on Saturday, is that the performances are fairly constant. Obviously you can dip in and out of things, but I'm always afraid that I'll miss something special. Although the Merchant City is awash with bars and restaurants, there ain't no sandwich bars, cafes or fast food outlets on the weekend which makes getting food quickly an issue. As I'm diabetic, planning when to take my meals and insulin maybe means I'm a bit more obsessed with this than most people, but City Halls has no catering so maybe having a "street food" stall, music themed cafe or meal breaks in the programme could be considered in future outings? Some people came along with sandwiches but I opted to eat first and therefore missed Usurper in The Fruitmarket (who were apparently inviting us "to join them for an early tea".

SLÁTUR and their electronic score

I did catch the end of S.L.Á.T.U.R.'s performance, where their musical notation on the screens recalled the video game "Guitar Hero". The audience watched for their clapping or stomping cues. Two orchestral performances by composers from this outfit will be on show in  Glasgow in October. This highlights the fact that Tectonics is a platform for living, working composers. With its younger than average audience for "classical" music, sitting in a concert hall, pint of lager in hand, it is an idea I think is worthy of praise.

The next 90 minutes were of varied vocal/ choral music. Vocal ensemble EXAUDI, led by founder James Weeks, sang six varied pieces, three of them by Wolff. The main thing to shine through from this was the virtuoso performance of the singers in performing these, at times, challenging pieces. Leaving the hall, more cacophonous voices greeted us in the foyer as members of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and Glasgow University Chapel Choir performed James Weeks's piece, Radical Road (accompanied by pots and pans of gravel and clacking stones).

Next it was time for the BBC SSO to dust off their instruments again with music from two British composers, James Clapperton and Michael Finnissy. Catherine Lamb's "Expand" and "Saturate" from a longer work were excellent and reminded me of the soundtrack score for "Under The Skin" by Mica Levi. They both had some echoes in the final piece in this section. A new BBC commision, A Thin Tree by Austrian composer Klaus Lang, it had a lovely timbre (see what I did there?), which grew and stretched. A lovely piece, utilising the full orchestra.

Takehisa Kosugi's set up

Next we had one of the highlights of the weekend as 76 year old Japanese musician Takehisa Kosugi, once of Taj Mahal Travellers collective. He hunched over a table of electrical odds and ends in the darkened Fruitmarket and produced 30 minutes of electronic noise and interference with light sensitive switches making this improvisation entertainment for the eyes and ears. A treat which showed up some of the other music across the weekend for its lack of ambition.

Volkov and the BBC SSO in The Fruitmarket

Finally the musicians of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra arranged themselves around the Fruitmarket Hall for the closing concert. It was great to see Richard Youngs, who had his guitar on the rack on stage here, take on something of this scale. With electronic sounds, guitar feedback and drums on stage, the strings were arranged around the Fruitmarket hall were the audience milled, brass on the balcony and Volkov conducted from a platform in the midst of it all. An appropriately eclectic performance to finish the evening.

Another enjoyable weekend, lots of composers here to hear their music performed and talk to the audiences. The earth maybe didn't move for me quite as much as it did at last year's Tectonics but some fabulous musicians performing for three nights in some fantastic venues. A real treat and I look forward to it's return next year.