Alasdair Gray was a Scottish writer and artist, described by The Guardian as ‘the father figure of the renaissance in Scottish literature and art which began in the penultimate decade of the 20th century.’
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray studied Design and Mural Painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1952-57. In art school, he was given the prompt to create a picture with the subject of ‘washing day with minimum of three figures.’ Initially uninspired by this generic topic, he found his muse in a Glasgow lane shaded by tenement buildings. A courtyard with a high hanging washing line and a half-withered hawthorn tree were to be the foundation for The Beast in the Pit (LOT 55). The objects in the drawing- the three figures, three cats, three washing tubs, three close entries- are designed to draw the eye around the nearly symmetrical view. The main lines give an illusion of a traditional perspective but, in actuality, the work has 2 or 3 vanishing points, and the figures cast no shadow. At the GSA, Gray was said to have ‘immediately impressed both his teacher and fellow students with fantastic, even visionary, projects’ (The Guardian), and The Beast in the Pit was at the forefront of this.
While he eventually achieved recognition for his artistic talents, Gray’s best-known work is his first novel Lanark, published in 1981, which was written over a period of almost 30 years. Now a classic, Lanark has been described as ‘one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction,’ inspiring the next generation of Scottish authors. Gray also wrote on politics, in support of socialism and Scottish independence, and this theme is similarly reflected in his artwork. While his written works combine elements of realism, fantasy and science fiction, he blended them with a clever use of typography and his own illustrations.
In past interviews, Gray described writing as draining, while painting was ‘an invigorating physical activity that gave him energy’ (p.129, Rodge Glass). Using his recognisable style of strong lines and high-impact graphics, he self-illustrated his books and poems. From the Soul’s Proper Loneliness (LOT 59), for example, is one of five prints which both lavishly illustrate and give depth to the text of Gray's poems. This lot is the original version from 1955, while there is a later collage version from 1965 and a coloured version from 2007.
Gray’s The Faust Legend (LOT 57) is another work that showcases his witty and bold graphic style. The scene is a chaotic one, which finds its origins in the original painting by Rembrandt, c. 1652, of the same name. In Rembrandt’s work, a scholar is transfixed by an orb of light that holds a secret code. In Gray’s version, all the knowledge of life swirls around this incredibly detailed work, intertwining symbols of death, love and the human experience. Gray has said that the figure of Faust ‘is an idealised version of me, busily introspecting’- (p.70, A Life in Pictures). As the original tracing cloth has been lost, only a few dyeline prints and photocopies of this work exist. However, as The Guardian proclaimed, ‘A peculiarity of Gray’s graphic work is that it sometimes appears at its best in reproduction.’
From 1977-78, Gray worked as Glasgow’s official artist recorder, painting portraits and streetscapes for the People’s Palace Local History Museum. He was constantly inspired by the people and places of Glasgow and often drew his friends and their families, like Portrait of Katey (LOT 56). Gray also undertook several mural commissions across the city, including a 40ft mural for the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station in the West end of Glasgow and the mural decoration of Oran Mor, an arts centre on Glasgow’s Byres Road. As Glasgow had a lasting impression on Gray and his artwork, so too did he on Glasgow.
Gray is remembered by those who knew him, as well as those who did not, for his ‘benignly nutty professor’ persona, with ‘thick spectacles and haywire hair.’ Over the course of his life, his work has been widely exhibited across Scotland and is currently held by several important international collections.
AUCTION | Contemporary & Post-War Art | Thursday 16th April at 11am | Online Only