Credit Katia Gort

90 years of Glasgow art

By Jessica Harris

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of The Glasgow Guardian, Art Editor Jess takes a look at how the art and artists of Glasgow have changed over the last 90 years.


The Glasgow Guardian was founded in 1932. At this time, most of the city’s art remained under the influence of  the ‘Glasgow Boys’ movement, a group of art nouveau artists who brought ideas over from France at the turn of the century. But the economic recession that followed the First World War meant an increasing focus on mundanity took over, signalling a departure from the previous grandeur of the art from decades past. Painters like Glasgow-born Thomas McGoran started to paint the everyday settings of the tenement housing and childhood of Glasgow youth, using bright colours and a naïve style to depict the markets and houses which were ubiquitous in Glasgow during the 1930s. Art was once an elitist practice reserved for decadent galleries, but McGoran’s work became something that working class people could see themselves represented in.


When Britain entered the Second World War, many artists were sent to fight for their country. As a result, much of the street art that was on display addressed this political climate – art was used to spread propaganda to help with the country’s conscription efforts at the time. Posters aimed to unite the UK for the war effort. The classic pin-up style art and saturated colours remain distinguishable to this day. The War had a larger influence on artwork during this time though, as many of the soldiers also turned their hand to drawing while deployed away from their family, and it was common to receive sketches or little comics from a loved one at war. 


As the 1950s oversaw a return to a semblance of normality, Scottish artist Jack Vettriano began to paint windswept, romanticised scenes devoid of political content and heavy subject matter. These resonated with the Scottish public, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Despite his art being disliked by many critics, the self-taught Fife-born Scottish painter was adored by the general public and sold many prints across Scotland, before rising to a greater level of fame in later decades. His art would be described in a Scotsman article as “the 50s without sectarianism, the 40s without war”. His work captured the 50s dream; an idealised version of society that people both in Glasgow and across Scotland hoped for in the future.

1960s and 1970s

During the 1960s, the Scottish play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil first premiered in Aberdeen. Characterised as a left-wing agitprop theatre group, the play explored social injustices, such as the highland clearances and land ownership, remaining a massive success that continues to this day. However the play itself wasn’t the only success: the hand-painted set in the design of an open book used in the production was also seen as innovative, and proved to be the first highlight in Paisley-born painter John Byrne’s career. It remains on display, on a 25-year loan to the V&A in Dundee. The Glasgow artist would go on to develop his recognisable style using elongated figures and heavy blue colour palette, becoming one of Scotland’s best known artists. Many of his paintings during the 70s provide a microcosm of how life was for the youth in Glasgow at the time, with his portraits, such as that of Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly, capturing the character and fashion that defined the 70s.


During the 80s, Glasgow City Council opened the Burrell Collection, which remains a pinnacle of both art and architecture with its distinctive red stone brick building. The opening of the gallery was based on the private collection of Sir William Burrell which was gifted to the City and housed in Bellahouston, Glasgow. Today, the collection holds an estimated value of £2 million according to the UK Parliament website, and following its recent reopening brought in over 10,000 visitors in the first 50 days. The building and display of this gallery in the 80s marked both an injection of fresh culture into Glasgow, and provided access to art for its people, boosting the economy for at least 40 years. 


The 90s was a decade that defined Glasgow in many ways, but one of the great attributes was its expanding contribution to the media industry. In 1996, the iconic Scottish Movie ‘Trainspotting’ was released. While being primarily associated with its setting in Edinburgh, a large portion of the filming was actually outsourced to Glasgow given its abundance of nightlife and cultural venues. Though this may not be considered art in the most general sense, the filming and cinematography in the film is perhaps one of Scotland’s best known artistic showcases. Scenes such as Begbie’s glassing of an innocent woman in a bar were shot less than a five minute walk from Murano Street in ‘BrewHaus’, while Diane and Renton met in the now closed Glasgow club ‘Cinders’, which was once found a short distance away from Kelvinhall station. So, all in all, it would be fair to say that Glasgow played a significant role in the film’s creation.

2000s and 2010s

During the 80s and 90s street art across the world began to spread as an artistic movement, diverging from how it had been considered by art critics of the past, and Glasgow proved no exception. The most popular style is reminiscent of New York graffiti, incorporating tags with bright colours and recognisable fonts. However it wasn’t until the 2000s that the larger murals of Glasgow really began to appear around the city’s streets, with the first mural appearing around 2008. The city began to see more pieces pop up in the following years with portraits, jokes and nods to Scottish culture all being incorporated in the designs. The most well-known of these is the unofficially titled “Portrait of St. Mungo” by street artist Smug, which depicts a modern day version of Glasgow’s patron Saint. Today there are so many around the city that a mural trail has been created to spot all of the art, and it remains one of Glasgow’s most exciting free art exhibitions.

Present day

Within just the last decade, much has changed in Glasgow’s art scene. Digital and social media have diversified the ways artists can share their content. In 2019 Glasgow was named the UK’s top cultural and creative city and it’s not hard to see why; with so many artists to choose from it was incredibly difficult to narrow down examples that do the city’s creative industry justice. So, to finish, here are a few of my favourite Glasgow artists on social media, for an idea at who and what the next big thing may be:

@eeveebrownart- (Tiktok) – stylised paintings

@purebarkin (Tiktok) – slow fashion brand 

@smugone – Instagram mural painter 


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