by Ian R. Mitchell, January 2010.
Ian R Mitchell penetrates behind the motorways, Universities and shopping malls in the search for an artist's vision.
Few areas are identified - especially in cities - with a particular great artist. The example of Utrillo who made Paris' Montmartre his own comes to mind, but there are none such to my knowledge in Scotland. Stanley Spencer certainly created many depictions of the shipyards, houses and people of Port Glasgow, but they represented an idealised Port Glasgow of his mind, not the grim one of reality ( see my article Port Glasgow Resurrection? in The Scots Magazine 2007.) The exception to this rule would appear to be the painter Joan Eardley and the Townhead district of Glasgow that she made her own.
I thought I knew Joan Eardley's work, and loved the sea and landscape paintings she did in the North East village of Catterline, where she lived in the later 1950s. But the 2007 retrospective of her work (held, rather perversely to my mind in The National Gallery in Edinburgh, given Glasgow's importance in her work) showed the error of my ways, and showed also how central to her was the time she spent in her Townhead studio and the works she painted there. If you missed this exhibition, it resulted in a wonderful and soon-reprinted catalogue, containing not only many of her actual Townhead paintings, but also several photographs, including some of her own, of the district in the late 40s and early 50s, and accounts of her interaction with local people, to whom she soon became an accepted figure. This publication is a good starting point for discovering what Townhead was like over half a century ago, a Townhead was soon to vanish (apart from several public buildings) almost without trace.
What was Eardley's Townhead like? It was similar to many inner-city Glasgow slum areas at that time, like Cowcaddens, like Woodside, like the Gorbals, except that it was the closest of all these to the city centre, starting at the rear entrance of Queen Street Station, and lying just two minutes from Glasgow's George Square and the City Chambers. From there it stretched towards Glasgow Cathedral in the High Street. Avoid other slums as they might, Glasgow's more affluent citizens could hardly avoid knowing Townhead.
Bounded to the north by the Forth and Clyde canal (now the M8 motorway), to the east by Castle Street, to the south by Rottenrow, the western gateway to Townhead was Parliamentary Road where it left the Cowcaddens between the portals of Queen Street and the now long gone Buchanan Street Stations. Much of this area has disappeared under the Buchanan Street Shopping Centre, the Killermont St Bus Station and the continually creeping campus of Caledonian University. Today a realigned and much extended North Hanover Street can be taken as the western "border" of Townhead.
Like other such inner city, largely unskilled working class areas in Glasgow, this was one of relatively great overcrowding amongst its 35,000 people. Though not as densely inhabited as some areas, in 1951 the population per acre, against a city average of 27, was 116. Again like many such areas the tenements were straight onto the street, with no gardens, railings or other features.. Close to the canal and city centre, warehousing and stabling were amongst the main employers; though declining horses being still widely used even around 1950. The largest heavy industrial concern was the Sun Foundry in Kennedy Street. Most interesting was the concentration of printing works in the area. The original University Printing Press was in Stanhope Street and was later taken over by Blackie's Publishers, whilst on Cathedral Street lay the works of the religious and temperance printer, Collins. Glasgow's greatest Victorian monumental sculptor, Mossman and Co, had their workshop on Cathedral Street. Most of these industries were still operating in 1951 when Eardley was in Townhead. Indeed that year's census recorded Glasgow's highest ever population, at well over a million, and ideas of its later industrial and population decline were still far from most people's thoughts.
Eardley took a studio on the corner of McAslin Street and St. James' Road in Townhead late in 1949. She kept this base till her death in 1963, returning frequently even after moving to Catterline in 1955, and being in the studio almost daily in the period 1950-55. The English-born Eardley came to Glasgow in 1940, aged 18, and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Though from a middle class background Eardley responded to the scenes of demotic street life in Glasgow. She loved Glasgow and talked of "this richness that Glasgow has, I hope it will always have, a living thing, intense quality.....as long as Glasgow has this I will always want to paint." Early canvases from the 1940s reflected this, recording a poverty stricken Street Market, the demotic street life shown in Back Street Bookie, and images of working people, such as the road builders in Mixer Men. During the war she had direct experience of this life, working in a boat yard painting - not canvases, but camouflage on landing craft.
However, it was in Townhead that she really immersed herself in the colours and rythmns of working class slum life, which she found especially stimulating. She (in some ways Joan was a lonely and depressive individual) responded to everything, but mostly to the children of the area, with their colourful patched clothes and limitless energy. She always carried a camera, partly because the children were so lively, it was difficult to get them to pose, and she used the photographs for her paintings. Eardley became especially friendly with the children on one family, the Samsons, saying "There are a large number of them, twelve.....they amuse me -they are full of what's going on today - whose broken into what shop and whose flung a pie in whose face." The paintings of the 1950-55 period are a rich and warm record of the children on Townhead, painted with sympathy and the slum buildings in the background are never the main focus of the picture, always just a backdrop.
When Eardley painted these images, Townhead was as it had been for three quarters of a century, the factories, the street pattern, the tenement housing, though the latter was in a much decayed condition. By the mid 1960s all of Townhead's tenements were gone. Not most, but all, in a way achieved in no other Comprehensive Redevelopment Area, where occasionally a better street was left, or even an isolated superior-quality building. These tenements were replaced by medium and high rise housing of much less population density, and even many of the streets themselves disappeared. Parliamentary Road, once the main thoroughfare of the area, is no longer on the map, and several other streets remain only in tiny truncated fragments. Anyone trying to find Eardley's Townhead would need a pre 1955 street atlas.
What interests me is that Joan Eardley saw this redevelopment happening - and did not respond to it artistically. She continued to paint - the Samson children included- until 1963, but the paintings are identical in theme and format to those she was executing 10 or more years earlier. But Townhead was not; by the early 60s much had already been demolished, many of the remaining tenements were empty, and the foundations of a new housing situation were well underway. I suspect that Eardley - who probably knew she was dying - tried to ignore this, given how important to her the integration she had with the Townhead community had been at an earlier part of her life. In the early 60s he gave an interview which noted her view that "The community feeling is rapidly disappearing in Glasgow..... I do feel there is still a little bit left. I still try and paint Glasgow as long as there is this...." This feeling of loss probably prevented her responding to the changing situation in Townhead.
But there was another Townhead that Eardley did not paint, one that might have attracted her brush and did draw the brush of many other artists. The images of the area in Eardley's paintings -and in her photographs and those of others such as Oscar Marzaroli show a real Townhead, the dense centre of gravity of the area. But around this density was another Townhead. Due to its central location, but often neglected because of its slum context, Townhead was fringed with a grand array of public buildings which still stand, like a wall round a medieval town, the 60s multi-storeys being, if you like, the fanciful towers of such, looming behind.
If you were to look for any remains of Eardley's Towhead, you might possibly arrive at Queen Street Station, and head up North Hanover Street, noting the lost lands of Townhead on the left; Shopping Centre, Bus Station, Caledonian University, till you join the famous, now much truncated, Dobbies Loan. Around Dobbies Loan and the adjacent Kyle and Baird Streets were located many of the areas industries. Much of the area around here is now given over the student accommodation for Caledonian University, as well as to the University itself.
Kennedy Street divides the current warehousing and small industrial units to the north, from the modern housing of Townhead to the south. Here stood the Sun Foundry, makers of high-quality cast iron products, and just afterwards at Lister Street is located what was virtually the only open space in Eardley's Townhead, the Corporation Bowling Green currently restored as a social asset after lying long derelict. The most notable factory hereabouts , in vanished Murray Street, was probably that of Rattray's Cycles, makers of the famous Flying Scot bike. At Glebe Street things now come pretty much to a stop amongst motorway flyovers and slipways, but here in Eardley's time Kennedy Street continued past the public Wash House, and the police and fire stations to Townhead Library, all now vanished below the torrent of the M8, alongwith the associated housing . Here were the two local cinemas, one probably the setting for Eardley's Saturday Matinee Picture Queue.
If we continue down Glebe Street we come to something else which was almost demolished for the motorway, and was only saved by a protest campaign; Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Martyrs Public School, now perched perilously above the traffic flow. Built a decade before his much more famous Scotland Street school, this is early Mackintosh, possibly not yet as assured as he was later to be in marrying Art Nouveau with the Scots Vernacular, but a very important building nevertheless. It has an interesting history. Originally built to commemorate two Protestant Reformation adherents martyred in 1537, shifting demography meant that ironically it became for a while a Roman Catholic school. Today it is a museums resource centre, occasionally open to the public. In Eardley's day, many of the children whom she painted would have attended the Martyrs' School.
Crossing the now incredibly busy Stirling Road, and heading southwards you come to the only actual housing in the whole of Townhead that Joan would have recognised. Standing here in isolation are a block of solid 1930s Glasgow Corporation slum clearance houses, that have remained whilst all else around has fallen. They stand on Cathedral Street and on the site next door, occupied by the Clydesdale Bank, could formerly be found the Mossman Monumental Sculpture works. But before we head up what remains of St James Road, we should take a look a little further down Castle Street.
Eardley was not drawn to paint what generations of artists saws as one of Glasgow's most picturesque buildings, the city's arguably oldest house, Provand's Lordship,which stands just south of here at the junction of Castle Street and Macleod Street. Built in the late fifteenth century as a hospital, the building underwent many changes of use, including that as a public house, till settling down as an overcrowded slum. It also underwent many alterations, but restoration works since the 1980s have made it an interesting museum with a delightful herb garden out back. In the 50s it was surrounded by slum tenements.
Returned to Stirling Street we find ourselves in the ever expanding territories of Strathclyde University, which adopted this name in 1964; Joan would have known it as the Glasgow and West of Scotland Royal Technical College. Originally centred on George Street, the institution expanded north and east to take in everything towards Cathedral Street including the infamous slum area of Rottenrow, (Rotten=rattan, old Scots for a rat) which also formerly was the location of Glasgow's maternity Hospital. Joan painted in Rottenrow which was part of her Townhead, but today it is decidedly city-centre and University territory, with student flats replacing the former crowded pre-industrial "lands" a few of which remained in the 1950s. North of Cathedral Street another cluster of colleges , recently amalgamated to form Glasgow Metropolitan College, partly blocked further expansion. But the former Collins Printing Works, still going strong in Eardley's time, closed down in the 1978 and became the Curran Building of the University. This was refaced in brick, with slit windows, and forms a striking if not entirely pleasing junction between St James Road and Cathedral Street.
Collins was at its height one of the largest printing and publishing firms in the world. Its owners were leading figures in Glasgow life and politics (William Collins was Provost 1877-80). The made their fortune (a portion of which was devoted to Temperance campaigning) in publishing bibles and diversified to diaries and general publishing. They were model employers, who built the Collins Institute (a social and health and welfare club for their employees) near to their works: this too has disappeared with the expansion of Strathclyde's campus. Around 1950 they employed 2500 people here, but it is unlikely that many of the highly paid printing workers employed by Collins actually lived in the crowded slums of Townhead.
Further up we pass the partial remains of Blackie's Villafield Printworks. Blackie anticipated Collins by several decades, by moving his works to Bishopbriggs in 1930. Blackie's former works retains a link with printing as the location of the joint Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities' Design and Printworks. Beyond this we are near to where Eardley's studio once stood. But do not go looking for the building which housed it -or even its former site. St James Road used to join with Dobbies Loan on Parliamentary Road; before that now happens it truncates abruptly in a new street know as St Mungo's Avenue. Somewhere to the north of this, amongst the modern housing, is the site of the artist's former studio. Also on St Mungo's Avenue is the Martyrs Church, relocated here when the one to the east was demolished for the motorway. It hosts a monument to three Covenanting Martyrs of 1684, including one James Nisbet, although the original church was actually named after the Reformation Martyrs mentioned earlier, which is a little confusing.
Hemmed in by motorways, and sandwiched between two expanding Universities, Joan Eardley's Townhead has shrunk markedly from its former dimensions. What remains shows almost no physical resemblance to the place she knew and which inspired her art. The whole of the remaining Townhead has recently undergone a massive upgrading in the housing and public space realm. It remains, however, a world - or two worlds- way from the high-tech Universities and fashionable retail outlets which now partially surround it. But whilst no one would claim that this area is some urban Eden, I am sure that much of the community which Joan feared was being lost, has resurfaced in new forms in the Townhead that has replaced the one she knew. Would it not have been wonderful, and a testimony to the Townhead that was lost and to the artist herself, if some tribute to her work had been incorporated into the renovation of the area? Elsewhere we see examples of large scale public art enlivening urban space. Townhead's redevelopment has seen the creation of some interesting and imaginative public sculptures. Why not, then, Eardley's weans reproduced on the walls of the high rises? Or in the schools, or in the rather insipid little shopping mall? I am certain that Joan would really have appreciated that. Her work is all we have left of the Townhead half a century ago.