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Glasgow’s palace of dreams

The novelist Andrew O’Hagan spent long hours at Kelvingrove, Glasgow as a teenage truant. Its treasures taught him things that school never could

andrew o’hagan | March/April 2014

The Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray once remarked that if the place you live in isn’t painted, if your voices aren’t heard on the radio and your people never appear in novels, then you may live there in real time but you don’t live there imaginatively. I grew up outside Glasgow in a Catholic household full of voices, stories and strong beliefs, but my parents didn’t have books. If you grow up in a house like that, where classical music is never heard and painting is forever a matter of Dulux, you may come to adulthood wondering whether high culture isn’t something that can only describe the lives of others.

One morning in May 1981, when I was 13, I went into the city and found my way to Kelvingrove. It was beautiful red sandstone, and daylight glinted off the arched windows. I was nervous going in: I wasn’t sure if you had to pay, or whether you had to know something already. But when I climbed the stairs and looked over the balcony, I had what I can only describe as my first teenage epiphany: this was ours, all ours, the paintings, the light, the stonework. It belonged to the people of Glasgow, and to me.

I made my way to the end of a corridor, where Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St John of the Cross” hung in theatrical gloom. I was used to crucifixion scenes. (My grandmother, who ran a fish shop, once pointed to a poster of Jesus in his crown of thorns, pinned on the shop wall. “Mind yourself,” she said. “That’s what happened to him for being good!”) Only when I saw the Dali did I rethink my sacramental hours as problems of light and form, seeing the question of devotion as a creative issue. I was familiar with the pallid image of Christ as a dying everyman, a bearded, etiolated figure, eyes rolling heavenward in his Passion. But Dali doesn’t show the face. We see a healthy man in his prime hanging crucified in cinematic light, hovering mysteriously over Galilee as if remembering earthly goodness. I sat opposite the picture for a long time, and when I stood up, I wasn’t the same.

Kelvingrove opened in 1902. The Lord Provost described it then as “a palace of dreams”, and that’s what it has always been, a building filled with the ghosts of artistic possibility. Bequests to the museum have long been a matter of honour in Glasgow. Archibald McLellan gave a Titian, “The Adulteress Brought Before Christ”, a Botticelli and more, and many have followed him. On subsequent visits, I got to know the taste of a certain Glasgow collector, William McInnes, who, in 1944, gave a Van Gogh, a Picasso, a stunning Monet, and a work by Henri Matisse that may be imprinted on my dreams long after death. “The Pink Tablecloth” is a work of such sublime decorative harmony that it seems to set the tone for the whole museum. It does this in more ways than one, for the best of the Scottish paintings at Kelvingrove take their cue from works like these by Matisse. Above all, for a boy searching for local miracles, it was the Scottish Colourists that fixed the museum in my mind. It was marvellous, of course, to see a Titian, but the brazen works of these Edwardian stylists — Cadell, Fergusson, Peploe, Hunter — cemented in my mind the idea that a great museum is not just a repository of treasures but an instigator of vision.

At the close of “Our Fathers”, my first novel, the narrator, Jamie, is sitting on the bed with his grandmother, Margaret, looking at some prints. One of them is Cadell’s “The Red Chair”. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” says Margaret, who grew up in the Highlands. “These are the very best pictures I ever saw. You can’t get over them. Look, Jamie. These are the pictures that brought me south.” When I wrote those lines, I was thinking of my own journey towards Cadell and the rest of the paintings in the museum at Kelvingrove. To me, those works seemed to possess magical modern properties: it was as if, viewed on days when I bunked off school, they held the secret of our potential to grow up and see the world fresh.

When I travelled back to Kelvingrove recently — not, like Margaret, travelling south, but north from London — I tried to work out what it was about the Colourists that had so captured my belief. The pictures are often of quite anodyne things — ladies in wide hats, scenes of the Hebrides in sun and rain. Easy subjects, in a way. But it was the style that got me. These were men who’d grown up with their fair share of the grey and mundane, but they went to France and came back iridescent. I loved the notion that a human imagination is not a static thing; that a zone of excellence such as impressionist France is not a stymied local repast but a moveable feast. You go away to come home.

Returns to museums can then be like the fulfilment of a Proustian contract. The objects themselves have travelled with you but the smell of the floors, the feel of the marble, this is the stuff of old acquaintance. And then before me was Francis Cadell’s large “Interior — The Orange Blind”. There she is, the woman sitting on the green chaise, her white face eternally mysterious. A man plays a piano in the shadows behind her, the side of the piano looking warm from the light filtered through the orange blind. And in front of the lady are the teapot and the cups, all of it redolent of an elegant moment that only exists in paint.

I saw the Dali again and wondered if it hadn’t grown in spiritual majesty as my own faith declined. I learned something I hadn’t known: the painting was damaged one day by a man with mental-health issues who threw a stone at it and ripped the canvas, saying such a painting had no business being in the collection at Kelvingrove. I paused over that. Maybe that’s what a great museum does to us: makes us possessive, makes us think we know it too well. I don’t mind rooms set out by period, but I always want to run away when I see themed rooms in a museum. Kelvingrove hasn’t escaped all that: “Creatures of the Past” is a little touchy-feely; “Conflict and Consequence” shows a little dab of post-colonial thinking.

But it’s still a palace of dreams. I wonder what children in the age of the internet make of St Kilda mailboats, these small wooden vessels that were crafted by the people of St Kilda to carry letters (and money for postage) to the mainland in the hope that they might make it to the addressee. Before a steamboat service came in 1877, St Kildans had no way of communicating with the world, and so they set these tiny wooden boats afloat across the sea with messages folded inside. They sent them off as we would ping an e-mail, minus the certainty, the thoughtlessness, or the speed. The St Kilda mailboats tell a story of how we have moved beyond the world’s power to delay us.

Kelvingrove was always about progress. The idea of opening it came to fruition during the huge International Exhibition in Kelvingrove Park in 1888. (That was a big year for pride and self-consciousness in Glasgow: Celtic Football Club was founded and work began on Templeton’s carpet factory, both still standing.) And as I walked through the museum I felt I wasn’t just visiting objects and paintings I loved, but walking through an idea of civic awakening.

In Glasgow the civic always feels personal. Kelvingrove may have been built to resemble the great church of Santiago de Compostela. It may have works by Turner and Van Gogh. But it will always be the creak of the vernacular that sounds as you walk over its several floors. My mind was still ablaze with the Scottish Colourists when I returned to the ground floor and saw the painting of Anna Pavlova by Sir John Lavery that stands just under two metres high. Orange scarf thrown above her head, weight tilted back, Pavlova is the very image of vigour across the distance of a century or so. And yet, this being Glasgow, my eye kept returning to the painter’s surname. My grandmother, the one with the fish shop, was called Molly Lavery. Her father played football for Clyde; her uncle Robert died on the Somme. They had no books or pictures in the house either, but they liked to think that their kinsman John Lavery was out capturing the world for Glasgow, and occasionally capturing Glasgow for the world.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is open daily, admission free;

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