The History of the RGI by Roger Billcliffe
1861 – 2004

By the middle of the 19th century Glasgow had become one of the most important cities of the British Empire, a centre of commerce, industry and population unequalled in Scotland and with few peers in the rest of the British Isles. The city had its complement of theatres, concert halls and libraries, a major art collection donated by Archibald McLellan and a number of art dealers but, surprisingly, no regular exhibition of the works of contemporary painters and sculptors. From the 1780s various organisations had attempted to fill this gap but none of them had either the financial backing or qualities of direction to maintain their initial impetus. It was with this in mind that on 29 May 1861, a group of ten or so of Glasgow’s prominent citizens met in the Queen’s Rooms, Buchanan Street, to discuss the establishment of annual exhibitions of the work of living artists. Roughly half of this group were artists, John Graham (later Sir John Graham-Gilbert), John Mossman and C N Woolworth being the best known, but a local businessman, Henry Simson, was elected Chairman at the meeting and was charged with arranging a public meeting and finding further financial support for the new Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts.

The public meeting endorsed the plans of the steering committee and Graham, along with Daniel MacNee RSA (who was co-opted to the committee) was given the task of arranging the first exhibition at the end of 1861. A budget of £500 was agreed and Glasgow Corporation agreed to the hire of the Corporation Galleries (now the McLellan Galleries) in Sauchiehall Street. One hundred and eleven paintings were sold but so many works were submitted that the costs increased to over £1,000 and a profit of only £55.2.3d was achieved. It was however, both an artistic and an enormous popular success attracting 39,099 visitors, with the Minute Book recording that a large proportion of these were purchasers of “Working Men’s Tickets”. Despite the disappointing financial results the Committee were encouraged by the reception the exhibition had received both from the artistic community and the general public. Accordingly, a formal Council and Constitution were voted in and plans were made for a second exhibition.

The shows, which followed, proved the financial viability of the new Institute and the quality of work submitted for exhibition vindicated the original decision to embark upon such an ambitious project. This early success, in some ways unexpected, brought with it a number of problems. These all centred upon the rapidly growing numbers of works sent in for the annual exhibitions. One of the reasons that the Institute was so eagerly welcomed by the artistic community in the West of Scotland was the relative difficulty these artists had in getting the work accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. So many artists wished to send work to the Glasgow exhibition that the Institute had to employ more staff to deal with submissions and arrange more gallery space to accommodate all the works. This placed a greater strain on the only suitable premises, the Corporation Galleries, and the Corporation of the City of Glasgow began to express its misgivings about the Institute’s repeated demands for accommodation. In particular, the Corporation was most unhappy about renting its Galleries to the Institute for four or five months of the year – which involved packing and putting into store the McLellan Collection of Old Masters. The early Minute Books of the Institute are filled with reports from both sides about the safety of the City’s art collection, the validity of exhibitions of contemporary painting and other such contentious matters. The relationship between Institute and Corporation was, at best, uneasy but the popularity of the exhibition with both the “art-buying” and the “art-loving” public ensured its continuing annual appearance at the Corporation Galleries until 1879 when the Institute opened its own Gallery in Sauchiehall Street (a building better known to more recent generations of Glaswegians as Pettigrew and Stephens’ department store).

As the exhibitions grew in size, so did they in quality. The foundation of the Institute did little to soften the Royal Scottish Academy’s attitude to painters from the West; indeed, in some ways there was a distinct polarisation between the two institutions with each concentrating on the work submitted from its immediate environs. The Council of the Institute, however, decided that they were not interested merely in arranging exhibitions of local artists. The original intention had been to bring the next of modern painting to Glasgow, no matter its origins. Accordingly the Institute decided that its show should aim beyond its own geographical area to encompass the best in modern painting from the whole of Britain and further afield. A start was made by borrowing paintings from local collectors. John Graham lent pictures by Turner and Constable, and the practice grew in the 1870s to include many works by French painters which had recently entered Scottish collections. Agents were recruited in London to seek out pictures for the Institute and by 1880 some of the most famous English artists were regular exhibitors in Glasgow, Albert Moore, Millais, Holman Hunt, Poynter, Leighton, Watts and Burne Jones joined London Scots, such as Pettrie and Orchardson, MacWhirter and Farquharson as contributors of major paintings to the annual exhibitions at the Institute. French and Dutch paintings became regular features too, either borrowed from collectors such as James Donald and Sir Peter Coats or contributed for sale by the artists’ dealers in London and Glasgow. Many a Millet or Corot, Israels or Maris found a permanent home in Glasgow after its appearance on the walls of the Institute.

Not surprisingly the popular success of these exhibitions increased the Institute’s profits – 45,327 people visited the second exhibition, 53,000 visitors were received at the third and the figures rose steadily for twenty years. Both the quality and quantity of works on show grew and the strain on the accommodation offered by the Corporation spurred the Institute to build a Gallery of its own. For some years the Institute had been putting part of its profits into the purchase of works from the exhibition and by the sale of these, and some judicious borrowings, sufficient funds were raised for the new project. J J Burnet was chosen as architect, a site was acquired in Sauchiehall Street between West Campbell Street and Wellington Street, and the new Galleries opened with the annual exhibition of 1879.

The opening of these new Galleries marked a change in the role and finances of the Institute. By 1880 it had become an established venue on the round of the grand formal exhibitions which were open to all artists throughout Britain. The Institute joined the Royal Academy, The Royal Scottish Academy, The West of England Academy, The Hibernian Academy, The Manchester Institute and the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in the circle – some might say circus – of exhibitions where the latest fashions and the latest productions of the great names were revealed every year. With these elegant and efficient new premises Glasgow’s position as a major venue was confirmed. The Institute also played host to Glasgow’s own contribution to the new developments in art. Its early acceptance of the French painters of the Barbizon School and the younger men like Jules Bastien-Lepage had a profound effect upon a group of young Scottish painters who came to be known as the “Glasgow Boys”. Their success at home and abroad, coupled with the publicity given to the huge international exhibition in 1888, focused attention on Glasgow and the Institute of the Fine Arts. Gradually, the Boys took their place on the Hanging Committee and ultimately the Council of the Institute and steered it firmly towards the more adventurous painting of the day. At this point, and continuing until at least 1914, the Institute presented the most interesting, catholic and enterprising annual exhibitions of modern art in Scotland and was, in fact, second only to the Royal Academy in London in the diversity of work on show. In 1896, in recognition of the Institute’s considerable achievements, Queen Victoria conferred upon it a Royal Charter and the Institute, as we know it today was formally constituted.

Until the outbreak of war in 1914, the Institute maintained its artistic and social success with annual displays of the latest in British painting which were unrivalled in Scotland. Although the most avant-garde of painters from the South did not show at the Institute, or any of the other major venues, the established figures of the day all sent their latest works to Glasgow. Sargent and Whistler, Waterhouse and Millais, Renoir and Khnopff, could be seen alongside Henry and Hornel, Gauld and Park, Lavery and Guthrie, together with the younger generation of Scottish painters and sculptors, spurred on by the example and success of the more senior men.

The benefits brought to the Institute by having its own Galleries, however, were soon offset by increased running costs. From being the organiser of a single annual exhibition, the Institute was suddenly presented with the problem of maintaining interest in its own Galleries throughout the year. To keep the Galleries in use, the Institute began to arrange smaller shows of Members’ watercolours and pastels, they were let out to other artistic societies, such as The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, but the income produced did not balance the standing charges of rates and the growing administrative costs of a permanent office. Much of the Institute’s capital had gone into the new building, and its assets were few, having sold its collection of paintings to help finance the Galleries. So, in 1902, after the opening of the new Corporation Art Gallery at Kelvingrove and the removal of the collections there, the Institute decided to sell its own premises and revert to its original hire of the McLellan Galleries which were now more easily available. Its debts were cleared but Glasgow lost one of its most attractive Gallery spaces, which was purchased by Pettigrew and Stephens, as an extension to its existing premises. Badly damaged by fire, it was eventually demolished in the early 1970s.

The outbreak of war in 1914 was not allowed to disrupt the Institute’s exhibition programme, and it continued to attract many of the artists from the south who had, in the previous decade, become its chief asset. Among these, of course, could now be numbered two of the Glasgow Boys who had settled in London before the war and were now pillars of the English artistic establishment – Sir John Lavery RA and George Henry RA. By this date they represented the old guard, along with others of the Boys who continued to exhibit – Gauld, Park, Guthrie, Walton and Hornel – but some younger painters, more in touch with the latest developments at home and abroad, also made regular appearances. The most prominent of these were three men approaching middle age – S J Peploe, Leslie Hunter and F C B Cadell – who made a direct link with pre-war Paris and the paintings of Matisse and Picasso. French painting was rarely seen at the Institute after the war and avant-garde work from the South was not so much in evidence at the annual exhibitions.

The Institute was not the only such body to suffer from this change in artistic trends. Few bodies of its size continued to attract the younger generation of experimental painters and sculptors. Indeed it was often part of these artists’ philosophy to treat the Academies and Institutes as the resting place of the old fashioned and every moribund and to arrange their own exhibition elsewhere. There had been a similar reaction to the Royal Academy in London as early as the 1880s when the Glasgow Boys, the Newlyn School and the London impressionists made odd bedfellows in the New English Art Club, founded to provide an alternative venue to the Academy. Similar clubs appeared in Scotland, such as the Society of Eight in Edinburgh which numbered the young Archibald McGlashan among its Members as well as Peploe and Cadell. After 1939, when J D Fergusson settled in Glasgow and helped to set up the New Art Club, other small groups were formed to provide a more progressive alternative to the Institute. By refusing to send to the Institute or Academies, young painters compounded this state of affairs, leaving the field open to the more traditional painters who took advantage of the situation and made the most of the excellent opportunities which the Institute provided. The control of these large artistic bodies was now more firmly than ever in the hands of the older painters, two major wars having the effect of decimating whole generations of talented men and women.

Like many similar bodies, the Institute accepted the situation with complacency during these years. It was no longer bringing to Glasgow the best in contemporary painting and there was not always room on its walls for the more advanced of the young Scots. The Institute’s Constitution, divided between layman and artists did much to foster this, although the presence of business people on the Council preserved its financial independence in an age when similar bodies were going bankrupt. Dividing the Council between laymen and artists, however, tipped the balance in favour of the older generation of painters at election time; with the few available seats on the Council going to the traditionalists, a more conservative outlook prevailed.

During the 1950s and in the decades since, there has been a concentrated effort to rekindle the excitement that the Institute generated in the first fifty years of its existence and the fruits of that policy are now becoming apparent. The generous gift of the J D Kelly Gallery gave the Council an opportunity to encourage individual painters through small exhibitions in the city at a time when such spaces were rare and oversubscribed. A return to the practice of inviting artists from outside the West of Scotland has broadened the Institute’s appeal and given many people the opportunity to see at first hand work which might otherwise be unavailable in Glasgow. The worst excesses of those academic painters who dominated not just the Institute but all the annual exhibitions in Britain are no longer with us and a return to the original values of 1861 seems more attainable. The Institute remains, by far, the largest and the best attended exhibition of contemporary art. It has provided space on its walls for many shades of artistic opinion and no longer operates the aesthetic censorship that was prevalent in the 1920 and 1930s. It may be a truism, but the quality and liveliness of its exhibitions is almost entirely dependent upon the quality of work submitted.

The Institute is aware of the problems which troubled it and similar bodies throughout the country and has come to grips with them. It faces its new role with enthusiasm and commitment, from a sound financial base, ready to play its own part in the current regeneration of the visual arts in the city to the heights they achieved a century ago. Its success cannot be doubted and it will be judged, and hopefully applauded, by Members and exhibitors for many years to come.

Roger Billcliffe

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