In September 1942 I travelled to Glasgow to begin my studies at Glasgow School of Art, the first and only known step for me to take in what I saw as a great adventure. Most of the other new students seemed equally nervous and excited, but most knew they were going to be art teachers. It was assumed I would be doing the same, but I had other ideas.
It was a strange time to be in the Art School. Wonderful to have the uncrowded Mackintosh building to ourselves, frustrating the shortage of staff and closed departments. Each year, the same wartime canteen food. Worst was the cold. Models sometimes couldn't pose at all. Other times, they posed shivering on their thrones. Students clung to the radiators at each interval. We were always cold. Fit male first year students were in the armed forces by second year. Jokes abounded that those who remained were half blind, deaf or flat footed. I caught glimpses of Ian Hamilton Finlay in army uniform, but didn't get to know him till he came back three years later.
Students were instructed in fire fighting up on the roof of the Mackintosh building and volunteers were required for night duty to patrol the entire building. Some of us volunteered to do two nights in a row. Some of us badly needed the three shillings and sixpence paid per night. In the early hours, a few of us would climb through the turret and stand high up on the roof looking over the vast black cityscape in an eerie moonlight. Unspoken was the thought, how would we cope if fire bombs did land on the Mackintosh building.
Head of Drawing and Painting was Hugh Adam Crawford. Painting was also taught by David Donaldson, later Dr Donaldson, Queen's Limner in Scotland. Head of the Sculpture department was Benno Schotz, later a friend, through our mutual friend Josef Herman. I knew Joan Eardley, a year or two ahead, and Cordelia Oliver, later Art Critic of the Herald and the Guardian, a friend and associate since through the many exhibitions she organised, researched and selected over the years, including my own large retrospective in 1985 at the Third Eye Centre.
A student friend, Bill Henry, introduced me to two of his friends. One was Stanley Baxter, the other Jack Gerson. The four of us went everywhere together for the next three years, hilarious times. Stanley tested new acts and gags on us. The large oriel window space in his parents' house became a stage, with curtains drawn. On cue, he would leap out to perform his latest wheeze. Other times, it was 'Hollywood, Hollywood,' impersonation of all the stars. Jack, still at Hillhead school, pale and thin, smoked cigarettes through a long holder and impersonated Nöel Coward. In 1960, I saw his acclaimed play 'The Three Ringed Circus' on BBC Television. Later, an exciting three-part TV dramatisation of Desmond Bagley's thriller 'Running Blind.' Many TV scripts followed and 11 published novels up to the present time.
1945, the end of war in Europe. Celebrations, bonfires, fireworks, laughing, singing and dancing at night, with a huge crowd in Kelvingrove Park. The end also of my three years at Art School. On a day in June a small group of students assembled in the Mackintosh library to receive our diplomas from the Director. Few staff were present. No parents, no guests, no gowns, just a handshake and tea and buns. How different it is today.
Hospitalfield College of Art, Arbroath, followed, a post-diploma three months' residential course. This was a rare opportunity to meet and study with James Cowie, an outstanding Scottish artist who was Warden of Hospitalfield. In his studio I saw and admired his paintings, masterly drawings and intricately planned constructions for still-life paintings, like little models for stage sets. A great experience. Even more stimulating were the talks in his study after supper. Literature, drama, poetry, all the arts, politics – everything discussed from Plato to the present day. Ideas, Ideas. Just what I'd been waiting to hear. In Art School only artists and their techniques were discussed.
And it was here at Hospitalfield that the Cowie family and students sat round the old wireless and cheered like thousands of others when the election results came through in 1945.
Reluctantly I went on to Jordanhill with no intention of being a teacher. Hating it. Marking time until something turned up. Two days as a student teacher at Hillhead. Free periods and lunch breaks alone, reading in a wee box room. Staff room beyond relief. Relief came at 4pm when I was met by Jack at the school gate among titters. Things got so bad, I'd set off for school (Headmaster Dr Merry – ha! ha!), take one long look, swerve off and head for my digs. I started a painting of the view from my window: a lane, middens, bins, bin men and rubbish. It was depressing. And worse, I wrote pages of melancholy poems which were dreadful, more rubbish.
One Saturday in town in early 1946, quite unexpectedly I met Stanley, returned from being a Bevin Boy. He asked me to accompany him to a Unity Theatre rehearsal. Turning into Scott Street, he opened the door and I walked into another world. Magic. This was it. I never returned to the college or school.
Two of the stage crew, who were refugees, took me for coffee to the Refugee Centre, another revelation. The building was the last remaining villa house in Sauchiehall Street standing in its own grounds where the Dental Hospital now stands. There I met three great women of the kitchen, Ailsa, Rosa and Gita, who would help me to survive in the next few years. Peter Kramer, lighting and props man, later to work at the Victoria Palace in London, became a good friend. Fifty years on we still keep in touch.
Within weeks, Unity took over the villa and it became the Unity Theatre Centre with the sign above the door, but still used by the refugees. I became a member of the Unity Theatre Club. I joined everything. Within a year or two I was a member of four or five clubs or groups.
From 1943, the Citizens Theatre, founded by James Bridie, George Singleton and Tom Honeyman, played at the old Athenaeum until 1945 when they moved to the Princess Theatre and then Unity, which was an amalgamation of several theatre companies, took over the Athenaeum stage. The first Unity production I saw was Gorki's 'The Lower Depths.' After that I went to everything. At one point Unity invited Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop to the Athenaeum and they performed Ewan McColl's 'Uranium 235' and 'Johnny Noble.' We were to meet again from time to time, Ewan as folk singer and collector and Joan and company at a great party in London in the 1950s.
A huge mix of people now gathered at the Unity Theatre Centre. Bob Mitchell, Director/Producer, actors such as Roddy McMillan, Russell Hunter, Andrew Keir, Julia Wallace, Robert McLeish (author of 'The Gorbals Story'), Harry Keir, artist, and many others. I first met Hugh MacDiarmid there with Ian Hamilton Finlay. One of the writers I became friendly with and who was very supportive was Eddie Boyd, decades before the highly successful TV play, 'The View from Daniel Pyke,' starring Roddy McMillan. Norrie and Janey Buchan were often there and soon I was involved in the folk scene with the Buchans, McColl and later Hamish Henderson.
Poets often in the Centre were Maurice Blythman (Thurso Berwick) and Jimmy Singer (Burns Singer). I met the poet John Singer, editor of 'Million', on his frequent visits from London. Jimmy Singer, just back from Cornwall, now staying with his parents in Glasgow, talked often to me about the Scottish painters Colquhoun and McBride and the poets W S Graham and Dylan Thomas. I enjoyed his company, his humour and as a painter, his looks: suntanned, sun bleached hair and air force jacket with big fleecy collar.
Not everyone enjoyed his company. Among the motley groups at the Centre were CP members and the Comrades did not like or understand him at all. Jimmy would act, strike a pose, make an entrance, declaiming. The Comrades invariably sat together, discussing seriously, looking solemn. One beautiful summer day, blue skies, sun shining through the wide open window, I was sitting quietly having coffee. A sudden dramatic entrance, Jimmy declaiming swept through the room and leaped straight out of the window. Vanished. Nijinsky – the famous leap. The Comrades were dumbfounded. Here, in a centre for all the arts. Had they never read Mayakovsky, heard of Nijinsky? Or Stanislavsky? Actors milled around, 'An Actor Prepares' ostentatiously under their arms. Still, this was Scotland. Jimmy wasn't daft of course. He did things deliberately to provoke them. He also landed three feet below on a flower bed.
Shortly after becoming a member of the Centre, I was getting odd jobs from Unity, publicity work, posters and helping with props for sets. Through Eddie Boyd I got a few illustrations to do for 'Scottish Field' and various periodicals of the day. Tim Watson also helped in that way. Tim, soon to be reviewing the Amateur Drama Festival offerings at the old Lyric Theatre, often asked me to come along to help him survive the worst.
On the strength of these assorted jobs, I rented a large front room in a flat in Sauchiehall Street, straight across from the Unity Theatre Centre for 12s 6d a week. There was nothing in it except a piano, a table, two chairs and a huge mirror between the two wooden shuttered windows. Bare floorboards, no heater. I obtained a pull-out armchair bed, sleeping bag, small rug and electric ring and kettle for making tea. Sparse. Once filled with my easel and all the artist's paraphernalia, it seemed much better, I was 21, had my first studio, and winter was a long way away.
I drew and painted portraits of dozens of the artists and stage crew including Russell Hunter, Peter Kramer, Bob Mitchell and Jimmy Singer in his jacket with the big fleecy collar. Also some of the refugees, friends and a few interesting looking characters like an old man from the Great Eastern doss house. Most of the theatre folk bought their portraits, a few didn't or couldn't. Incredibly, a refugee, one fully employed by Unity, stole his portrait when I wasn't looking or thinking. I couldn't prove it and couldn't get it back. He did well of course. Heard years ago he was the owner of a large factory in Canada.
Eddie Boyd, Maurice Blythman and John Kinkaid were all members of the Clyde Group of Writers and Artists founded before 1946 when I joined. MacDiarmid supported and associated with the Group and was one of the main speakers in 1948 when the Clyde Group held a large exhibition in the McLellan Galleries called the Art and Peace Festival and Exhibition. Two of the active artist members were Tom Macdonald, designer and scene painter with Unity, and Willison Taylor, for a time Chairman of Unity. The aim of the Group stated in its manifesto was to take art to the people, decades before the Scottish Arts Council pointedly suggested that art groups hoping to continue receiving grants should start to do just that. We did this missionary work, as we later called it, like everything else, unaided.
We transported, hung and put on art exhibitions for one evening in bleak halls in housing schemes like Househillwood and someone would give a poetry reading when people came in, six on average. An early 'Fringe' event. Nothing could be left in the hall, so at the appointed time we'd take the show down and leave. Two of us walking part of the way back at night, suspicious characters with a large holdall, were stopped by a big Bobby. On opening the bag, he discovered tools. He looked, on hearing our explanation, as if he'd heard the weirdest story yet.
I was asked to come to the aid of The Party by painting large portraits for a May Day parade. Something useful those layabout 'arty' folk could do; artists were never considered necessary except in work for the Cause. I painted two or three larger than life heads in oils on board from blown-up photographs, good experience for me. The only one I remember, my best one, and one I enjoyed painting, was La Pasionaria, the famous Spanish woman fighter against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
From early 1946 and for several more years, I was drawing and painting in my Sauchiehall Street studio preparing for my first solo exhibition to be presented by Unity Theatre at the old Athenaeum in December. I was also out drawing people and places in Glasgow: up at the canal with its busy basin, Port Dundas, with the last coal puffer, grain mills and timber yards, avoiding the fumes from the huge Tennants stack. My favourite places were Cowcaddens and Gorbals Cross, teeming with life. There was scarcely a car, everyone walking about. People were never more friendly than they were then.
Yet, the real life backdrop to everyone's life was the grim relentless black of the buildings. Black, black, soot black Glasgow. As winter approached and chimneys smoked, fog turned to smog. Awful. People scurried about the streets, eyes streaming, handkerchiefs held over faces. White ones turned dirty umber in a minute.
So far I'd managed, just, with free bowls of soup from Ailsa, Gita and Rosa and I usually could afford bread and liver sausage. Whoever had money bought the coffee, turn about. Late night supper was a coffee and hot dog at Charing Cross coffee stall with Peter. No food could be kept in the studio. At night the mice galloped around the room. I painted in my thick wartime coat, acquired with many coupons, scarf and gloves. January 1947 was one of the coldest recorded.
A day came when I only had a few shillings left and no paid work in sight. At this very time, alterations of some kind were taking place in the Centre's kitchen and there were no cooked meals, no bowls of soup. For four days I existed on nothing but coffees and one or two biscuits. By the fifth day I had absolutely nothing. The door bell rang. Jimmy Singer turned up. He asked and I told him. In the evening, with food from his parents' house, we dined together, well away from mice and freezing cold.
Unbelievably, within days, Bob Mitchell invited me to design and paint a set, my first. Bob was good with young people, he gave them a start. The set was for Ena Lamont Stewart's 'Men Should Weep.' With Bob's rough stage plan, description of the play, characters and atmosphere, I hurried over to the Centre to tell Tom, the usual designer, expecting encouragement and help. He was thoroughly put out. Miffed. No help. Never looked near the workshop.
It was miserably cold in the Argyle Street workshop. Just a brazier at one end. From a ladder I painted and stencilled the 18 foot high flats, learning the meaning of 'the show must go on.' The result was by no means brilliant, but must have been adequate, as I got more sets to design and paint. The play, of course, was highly successful and again, in recent years, in a new production.
The Clyde Group continued until the big exhibition in 1948, but individuals needed to develop. Eddie went his own way, writing and script writing. Artists formed a new group, the Society of Scottish Independent Artists, attracting new members of differing opinions and styles. Through John Gibson, designer in charge of theatre events, we now exhibited regularly at Iona Community House and received favourable reviews.
One great artistic creation, thought by many to be the greatest single cultural achievement in Glasgow, from 1939-1972 was George Singleton's wonderful Cosmo cinema (it continued after a two year break in 1974 as the Glasgow Film Theatre). Art School students, language students, the young, the elderly, and people of different social classes saw gems of films there and remember it with great affection.
While the Cosmo happily flourished through the war years, the 1950s and into better times, it was very different for young actors, writers and painters. There was a big divide. Them and us. The Establishment and the young unknowns. No assistance, no interest. Nobody wanted to know artists who were influenced by the powerful German Expressionists or other movements from 'abroad'. New ideas were not welcomed as people of the stature of Jankel Adler, Josef Herman, J D Fergusson, Bill Crosbie, Andrew Taylor Elder and others who had studied abroad found out. In a certain well-known establishment, Adler and Herman were contemptuously called 'these queer foreign painter chaps.'
Adler and Herman left Glasgow in 1943, though Herman often returned, and by the early 1950s, following the demise of Unity and the break-up of the Refugee Centre, there was a huge exodus from Glasgow. People left in droves to find work in London. For a brief period, Glasgow was cosmopolitan. It seemed to us that the city was alive. But in the bleak 1950s, it was as if nothing had happened at all.
In 1956, some active Independents, including Bill Rennie, Callum Sinclair (of the Joe Gordon Folk Four) and myself, decided to go for an open air exhibition at weekends on the railings of the Botanic Gardens. We applied to the Parks Department for permission and that was exactly what we got, nothing more. The exhibition was a tremendous success. Hundreds turned out to see us. Queen Margaret Drive at the junction with Great Western Road was so crowded, police were out directing the traffic. People peered from buses. The BBC were filming. Fergusson and Margaret hurried along to support us. The sun shone. Paintings were sold. People were enjoying themselves. The Weekly Scotsman gave us a huge spread and large photographs under the heading, 'Paris on the Kelvin.' The second year was also good, but after that it died the usual death.
In 1958, the Glasgow Group, composed of entirely different artists with James Spence, a founder member, as President, held its first exhibition. It continued into its fourth decade, holding highly successful annual exhibitions in the McLellan Galleries. A Glasgow Group Society was established, whose members paid an annual subscription. I was invited to join in the mid-1960s and thereafter took part in most exhibitions. Additional smaller shows developed later. Through membership subscriptions, grants and sponsorships, it was able to carry on financially, but unfortunately the McLellan Galleries ceased to be available to the Group.
It took until 1963 to achieve something more than a mere one-off, or an annual exhibition. A new wave of young aspiring artists had sprung up and, as in the 1940s, were taking any kind of part-time job that turned up. I knew two who were grave-diggers. John Taylor and I became certain that a gallery was essential and set about trying to establish one.
Mr Duthie, owner of a print shop in Sauchiehall Street, gave us his unused upper floor rent-free. A small percentage on sales was agreed. With a few pounds between us, John had partitions built and walls painted. I wrote scores of letters to critics, the BBC, collectors, printers and others. When everything was organised and the gallery a certainty, we invited Cyril Gerber, friend, enthusiast and collector of paintings to join us and, enthusiastic as ever, he did.
From its opening in December 1963, as the New Charing Cross Gallery, it was a huge success. We showed work by new young artists and well-known ones like Fergusson and Eardley. When it had to close in 1968 due to the illness of Mr Duthie, it didn't die the usual death. Within a year, Cyril obtained a suitable property in West Regent Street and in 1969 he opened the Compass Gallery which has gone on from strength to strength to the present day.
Now galleries proliferate. Artists have choice, grants, sponsorships, travelling scholarships, residences, the choice to live and work here or travel to New York, Mexico, Hong Kong and exhibit. In the past, this was possible only through a London gallery. Dealers come looking for Scottish artists. Compared with the 1950s, the scene appears brilliant. One niggling thought: are we considered 'useful', another cause to promote a City of Culture, and now tourism?
A great renaissance in the arts has come about. Wonderful now, all the creativity. Alarming therefore, the position of Scottish Opera, the SNO, Scottish Ballet and certain theatre companies. As one of the thousands who packed theatres and the old St Andrew's Hall half a century ago for opera, ballet, plays, concerts, folk singing, poetry readings and now our own Scottish Opera and Ballet, I feel strongly that all are vital to any City of Culture and must be adequately funded. We cannot afford to lose any, or a single artist again.
This article first appeared in the Scottish Review in 1996