Galleries: Post-war painter William Gallacher gets recognition he deserves at last




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Let me take you back in time. It is the 1960s in Glasgow. A group of men stand around a roaring fire surrounded by a huge oak fireplace designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the end of the 19th century. We are inside Mackintosh’s Art Nouveau masterpiece, The Glasgow Art Club. The men (women are not allowed to be members of the club) are a tight-knit group. The air is thick with smoke and banter.

There is talk of artists and exhibitions and, intermittently, about art. Artists in this informal group include well-known painters such as John Cunningham, Dan Ferguson, Sandy Goudie and David Donaldson. Acclaimed sculptor, Benno Schotz, is here too. There’s a smattering of businessmen; fish merchant Livi Neill and racing driver turned car dealership owner Ninian Sanderson. At least two of the assembled men, Ferguson – a waspish and mischievous caricaturist on the side – and newspaper cartoonist, Emilio Coia, are drawing the scene in their head.

Slightly off-to-the-side, is William Gallacher. Like several of the group, he teaches at the nearby Glasgow School of Art (GSA). Known as Bill, he is in his forties and is carefully cleaning his pipe. Head bent, eyes narrowed, each twist of the knife carefully scraping around the bowl. As he does so, he throws out the odd comment in response to the conversation. Carefully measured, pawky or earthy, depending on the discussion. Although he feigns ignorance, Bill’s points are shrewdly-made and bear a trace of innocence in order to puncture any pretentiousness.

Bill is respected as an artist and as a man. His peers admire his work and there is stunning one self-portrait of him as a slightly younger man, tieless and with sleeves rolled up, which they all pass on the way to the bar, nodding as they go.

Named after his uncle, Willie Gallacher, a “Red Clydesider” and Scotland’s last Communist MP, like many of his generation, Bill has been marked by war-time experiences. In Bill’s case, his studies as the GSA had been interrupted by five years in the Royal Navy Patrol Service from 1941 to 1946 as a Seaman Gunner. It was intense and dangerous work. Many men died and 250 ships were lost on duty. Like many men whose young lives are dominated by war and trauma, Bill rarely spoke about this tumultuous period to his family, his artist wife Nita Begg – whom he met at GSA in 1937 – and their children, Michael, Jane and James.

After resuming his studies at GSA and marrying Nita, he simply got on with life as a sought-after portrait painter. Commissions included a portrait of renowned Scottish rugby player, Gordon Waddell, the children of well-known Glasgow architect, Jack Coia and the family of the rally-driving Sanderson. He also designed murals – his 1948 mural, Salome, was viewed by generations of students in the GSA student refectory.

Gallacher, who had angina and had suffered previous heart attacks, collapsed and died suddenly in October 1978 at the age of 57, while climbing the stairs of his Sauchiehall Street studio. It was a Saturday night in October and he had spent the day at a lunchtime opening of an exhibition at the Art Club, before spending the afternoon at The Amphora pub in Sauchiehall Street watching a jazz band with friends.

At the time of his death, Bill had been working towards a solo show in the Art Club, which ironically might have put his name more out into the wider public domain.

The life of a modest Glasgow portrait painter may not have been particularly noteworthy in the 1970s, but a spontaneous tribute from members of the Club culminated in a memorial exhibition at the Art Club in 1979, which took almost a year to plan in order to bring his commissioned work together under one roof. His sudden loss left a grief-stricken family and he was deeply mourned in the artistic life of the city. Treasured memories of him survive to this day.

His younger son Jim, now in his late 50s, remembers it as a traumatic period. Only now, more than four decades on, is he coming to terms with his kindly father’s sudden death by trying to claim back his legacy and catalogue his work for future generations to enjoy.

Like many people in the last year, Jim who went on to attend GSA himself like his parents before him, has had time on his hands. With 2020 being the centenary of his father’s birth, Jim had originally planned to write a book to promote awareness of his life and work. With this in mind, he set up a Twitter feed called @GallacherArt in late 2018, which is where I first noticed his father’s luminous drawings and paintings last year.

A quick scroll through the feed was enough to make me wonder why I’d never heard of this quiet genius, who won countless awards at GSA and was a much-respected peer of Joan Eardley – as was Nita.

The three artists were all regarded as GSA “stars” and they all attended Hospitalfield House’s summer school in Arbroath in 1947. When Eardley and Gallacher returned to do a post-diploma year at GSA in 1947/48, they held a joint exhibition at the art school’s gallery in the Mackintosh Building. They remained friend until Eardley’s early death in 1963, visiting her several times in the family caravan at her home in Catterline.

William Gallacher’s centenary year may have come and gone, but his son has now commissioned a new website as a point of entry for people to enjoy his father’s work.

He explains: “Investigating his work has been deeply affecting for me. I carried around his collection of working drawings for years. In the 1980s I got them all into drawers and tissue and then in the 1990s looked at them and thought, ‘these are really something’. I tried to do some basic conservation and in the 2000s started photographing them and contacting people; realising that I was too late for those who knew him most, such as his friend and fellow artist, William Crosbie.

“I found I was not really able to function very well as an interviewer anyway as I often got choked up. One interview was never going to be enough. I think I was trying not just to get information, but to rebuild him or find out where the heck he was.”

Jim hopes that the website, built by Edinburgh-based artist David Cass, will promote awareness of his father’s work, help match some of his charcoal student portraits and find unidentified oil portraits which exist only in photographic form.

The hope is also that this quiet man of post-war Scottish art, who was not one for fuss, will begin to take his place among the pantheon of greats.

Less than a year after his death, his friends at the Glasgow Art Club mounted a “spontaneous” memorial exhibition of his work. The poster was designed by pioneering mid-century designer, Bob Stewart, a friend and GSA colleague.

Bill’s friend, the painter John B Fleming summed up his friend’s genius for portraiture in one paragraph. “He kept a remorselessly clinical eye for self-portraits but when it came to depicting the young and the beautiful, he allowed the romantic deep inside him free expression.”

If you have any information about work by William Gallacher, please contact his son Jim on [email protected]

Don’t Miss

You wait years for a down-to-earth programme about art and two come along at once. Sky One recently kicked off a new series of Rob & Romesh Vs, in which comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan take on a subject which perplexes them both. In episode one, oor own dear Lachlan Goudie, artist, broadcaster and enthusiastic exponent of art demystification, attempted to introduce the pair to art history. The programme veered off into slapstick when they were asked to do some life drawing of a naked male model. Cue appendages jokes a-plenty. This was swiftly followed by some whacky performance art. Crazy artists, eh? What are they like?

Closer to home, Scottish comedian Des Clarke is on the same track with a new series of Des Doesn’t Do… on BBC Scotland. And yes, you’ve guessed it, this week Des is not doing art. And yes, you would not be wrong in your assumption that a male life model will be involved. Who can resist an appendage joke?

Des sets out his stall at the outset: “I just don’t understand it, don’t connect with it… don’t get it. Everyone talks in a very earnest way and they stroke their chin… that’s not me and can never be me.”

His journey starts at Perth Museum and Art Gallery in the capable hands of interior designer and Scotland’s Home of the Year judge, Anna Campbell-Jones, who boils down art appreciation to one perfect sentence when she tsays: “Artists made art to communicate with people like us so we can go and look at it and get what we want from it…”

It turns out Des isn’t so daft as he makes out when he picks out a couple of paintings which catch his eye; Alison Watt’s Orion (“like an extreme close-up of a bed sheet”) and William Crosbie’s 1939 painting La Vie Distrante (“somewhere between a painting and a book”)

With his “inner art guru nailed”, he heads off to meet the enchanting emerging artist, Saoirse Amira Anis as she dances around Charles Jencks Teletubbies-like landforms at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh. Elsewhere at this sprawling sculpture park, Pylllida Law’s Quarry made Des think of the tower blocks where he grew up while Anish Kapoor’s Suck “annoyed” him. Fair enough.

His final port of call is in the Gorbals, Glasgow, where graffiti artist, Danny McDermott, shows him his 11ft by 15ft artwork of Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee surrounded by 22 of his comic characters. See art? It’s not so tricky…

Des Doesn’t Do… Art, Thursday 18 February, BBC Scotland, 8.30 – 9.00pm


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