There is one great survivor from the two fires that have now swept through The Glasgow School of Art – leaving it, as of June 2018, little but a tragically charred shell. The Building Committee, Glasgow School of Art, is a magnificently atmospheric group portrait by Francis Henry Newbery. It shows the sober-suited gathering of gentlemen who oversaw the construction of the Mackintosh building. They’re setting about their business in a workmanlike way.
Newbery, director of the school from 1885 to 1917, coyly includes himself on the far right. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect of what would come to be known as Scotland’s favourite building, is to the far left.
The Building Committee was gifted to the Glasgow School of Art in 1914. It was hung in the East Wing, in the boardroom of the Mackintosh School. It was there a century later, in 2014, when the first fire struck the historic West Wing of the Mackintosh building. Some 90 oil paintings were destroyed in that fire, though they are still recorded on the Art UK website as among The Glasgow School of Art’s collection. Most were in storage above the famous library, tragically lost in the blaze.
But The Building Committee survived the first fire, and was not back in place in the still unfinished building for the even more disastrous second fire, in June 2018. At time of writing, with the future of the GSA and any rebuild still much in the news, it was in safe storage.
A second considerable work in the art school’s collection was another major survivor, The Two Roberts: Colquhoun and MacBryde. This formidable double portrait of the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde is by Ian Fleming, an art school lecturer. In 2014 it was being prepared as the signature painting in an exhibition revisiting the legacy of the two Roberts at the National Galleries of Scotland.
The show, which opened in November 2014, was the first major retrospective on the two working-class boys from Ayrshire, artists and lovers whose popularity soared in the 1940s but nose-dived after their early deaths in the 1960s. Both are extensively represented in public collections in Scotland and England.
Other characters in The Building Committee include the painter Sir Francis Powell, a founder and first president of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, and the architect Sir John J. Burnet, who had submitted competing designs for the new building.
Francis (or Fra) Newbery was born the son of a Devon shoemaker who first qualified as an art master at the Bridport School of Art and became headmaster of Glasgow School of Art at the age of 30. He exhibited with the Glasgow Boys, including Sir John Lavery.
His first version of The Building Committee did not include Mackintosh, whom he had appointed as the architect. His study for Mackintosh alone, which he subsequently incorporated, is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s collection – another survivor.
Art UK’s record of GSA paintings that were lost, however, sadly includes two works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself. The wall panels for the Dug-Out, at the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, were unique in his oeuvre, painted in oil on free-standing canvas.
Nearly 100 pieces of furniture in the Mackintosh building were also lost, as well as several plaster casts. But the school has reported that over 100 artworks by Mackintosh on paper – which aren't yet listed on Art UK’s database – were saved.
Aside from Mackintosh’s work, the 90 oil paintings that did burn at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014 were of course irreplaceable, but as standalone works not quite so rare. The leading Scottish modern painter Joan Eardley graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1943, and her Catterline was a signature landscape painting of the small fishing village where she lived and worked.
Two other works by Francis Newbery were lost. One was a portrait of James Craig Annan, the Scottish photographer and printer, whose work was exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz in New York. The other a charming landscape of Corfe Castle, in Dorset, where Newbery retired.
Of the other pieces that did burn, the saddest losses are those not necessarily great works of art, but which literally painted a picture of the Mackintosh building and the people who worked in it. Almost all the works in the collection were by former students or staff.
The portrait artist Phyllis Dodd, whose husband Percy Bliss was director of the GSA, painted librarian Adam Gowans in the Mackintosh library. Jessie Alexandra Dick, a GSA graduate who joined the staff in 1921, painted herself at work in her studio. Elizabeth Anderson, one of the first students in the new building, painted its first floor museum, looking east.
Several works including life studies that may have been used for teaching at the school by the formidable English portraitist Maurice Greiffenhagen were lost. But some 61 works by Greiffenhagen, appointed by Newbery and who became GSA’s Professor of Life Classes, are listed in the Art UK database.
Another casualty were three works by the abstract painter Bet Low (1924–2017) who studied at the school during the Second World War. In the art market her work has yet to command major appeal. Several pieces from her studio sold at auction in Lyon and Turnbull in 2018 – the highest price was just over £2,000.
We have, at least, a pictorial record of some of the losses, thanks to Art UK's digitisation project. The double tragedy at The Glasgow School of Art shows just how fragile our art history can be.
Tim Cornwell, freelance arts writer