In 2008 the Glasgow School of Art had a show on called The Two Alasdairs. It featured the work of Alasdair Gray and his deceased friend Alasdair Taylor. Grainne Rice was the director of exhibitions at the time and asked me to write an essay on my relationship with Alasdair Gray’s work to be published in the catalogue for the show and I had the idea of drawing a portrait. Reproduced below are the portrait and the essay.
It’s Just Where I Live
“The art of Alasdair Gray is as original and as creative in it’s conception and execution as his novels, short stories, plays and poems. Sadly this is a view not widely shared, otherwise this piece would be being written by a professional art historian, our galleries and public buildings would be rich with Gray’s works, and his international reputation as a muralist in his native land would be as secure as that of Diego Rivera in Mexico and John Singer Sargent in the USA.”
Elspeth King, from her essay Art for the Early Days of a Better Nation in Alasdair Gray: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. Phil Moores (ed), British Library, 2002.
I’ve liked Alasdair Gray’s work for years now. I was first attracted to the cover and full-page illustrations spotted while flicking through a hardback copy of Lanark my uncle had lying around. I’ve bumped into him quite a few times over the years, and drawn him on several occasions, but only really spoke to him much regularly in the last couple of years since he became acquainted with my own work. I don’t go round to his house for tea and biscuits or anything, although I did visit him yesterday to draw him for this catalogue while he happened to be dictating to his secretary. The first portrait I did fitted the bill and we were both happy with it. I showed it to him when it was finished and he said “HA! It’s all true! Well, I can live with that if you can. I usually do two or three then decide the first was the best anyway.” I was in and out in less than half an hour with the job done. Just as well because I had to catch a bus, and anyway I don’t like disturbing folk at their work, although he didn’t mind.
The work selected for this show concentrates on his treatment / use of the city and of the people in it, their relationship with their environment. Obviously in the case of Alasdair Gray the city in question is Glasgow. Whether it’s his novels and short stories or his artwork Glasgow seems to play a big part in it. But I think people make too much out of this aspect of his work. I took part along with Alasdair in a talk at Edinburgh College of Art a couple of years ago and a question for me from an audience member was something along the lines of how important living and working in Glasgow is to me and how important a factor Glasgow is in the work I make. I said “It’s not important”. The guy looked a bit confused, I said “It’s just that’s where I am most of the time, and my work is about things that happen to me and people I meet, and most of that takes place in Glasgow. If I was brought up and lived in Blackpool then my work would be about Blackpool.” Alasdair Gray said to me quietly “Yes, I agree”. On the same subject, I was in the audience for an interview he was doing for Radio Scotland to publicise Old Men In Love and the interviewer asked him about the fact that the book was set in the west end of Glasgow… the main character had lived there all his life… Byres Road… Tennant’s Bar… Glasgow University… he was really getting into it with this question which culminated with “So Alasdair, the West End. It’s obviously a special place to you, and inspires you. Is that really, you know, your milieu as it were as an artist?” To which Alasdair replied, “It’s… eh… just where I live.”
As I said, it was the illustrations to Lanark that first caught my attention, black and white, clear lines and plenty of detail, and most importantly places in amongst the detail that I recognised. I spotted Alexandra Park, Glasgow Cathedral, the Necropolis, the Wills cigarette factory and others. All places ten minutes or less from where I lived that already held a kind of fascination for me anyway. I went to my school library to see if they had any of his books, and recognized one from the drawings on the spine. It turned out to be Unlikely Stories, Mostly, so I read that then Lanark next, and worked my way through the rest until I had to wait for a new one to come out. The most important thing about his work for me at this point, when I was only just discovering it and finding out about who Alasdair Gray was, was the fact that he used familiar places and ordinary people to make great epic works of art, and what’s more he lived in Glasgow and had been brought up in the next street to where my pal lived in Riddrie fifteen minutes along the road from me.
The more books I read the more I wanted to see of his artwork because I found the books themselves so visually interesting. Obviously this was before you could sit at a computer and type “Alasdair Gray” into Google and see all the paintings you want. So aside from the book illustrations I’d just see things here and there. One of the first I saw was a reproduction in a book of ‘London Road between Templeton’s Carpet Factory and the Monaco Bar, 1977’. Again this was of an area and places I knew well. It’s still one of my favourite Alasdair Gray drawings. The scene has changed a bit. The carpet factory building is still there although it doesn’t make carpets anymore. Most of the tenements in the distance have been demolished, and the road in the foreground is a lot wider and busier. I used to go into the pub on the corner years ago. By that time it was called The New Monaco but everybody called it The Manky. It was great. Especially the big lounge bar, really dark and grubby, no windows and a spring loaded door. Full of old people, smoke, and a bit of singing in the afternoons. In amongst all this it had a swanky bamboo cocktail list up behind the bar. Unfortunately now it’s been converted into a storage unit. The drawing was done as part of a series of works commissioned by Elspeth King, who was then at the People’s Palace, to record various people and places in Glasgow. The subjects include all sorts of people in all sorts of occupations, and also a lot of buildings many of which were due to be demolished. I find this body of work among the most interesting he has produced, both the idea behind it, it’s wide choice of subjects, and use of materials. It’s a shame that only about four of them are currently on display stuck in a corner of the People’s Palace while most of them gather dust, I believe, in a council warehouse in Maryhill.
Alasdair Gray first became aware of my own work before I began publishing books of drawings when I drew him as he slept in Studio One, which used to be a decent pub in Byres Road. It’s now been converted into a trendy ‘bar bistro’ place and been given a stupid name. One afternoon me and my pals were sitting at a table and one of them said “Check that old guy sleepin”. I looked and saw it was Alasdair Gray, he’d been reading and put the book down and fell asleep. His wife was sitting opposite him and was looking over and more than likely thinking “Those cheeky bastards think it’s funny that he’s asleep and they don’t even know who he is.” I recognized him and said to them “That’s Alasdair Gray.” Most of them had read his stuff but didn’t know what he looked like. Then one said I should draw him, but the only paper we had was a big receipt, so I drew on the back of that. I thought, Christ I’ve been put on the spot here, but it turned out not bad. I wrote across the top “Alasdair Gray dozing in Studio One Byres Road” and the date, and signed it. Then I took it over and gave it to his wife saying “Can ye give that to him when he wakes up?” She looked kind of puzzled then saw the drawing and said “Oh aye, yes, yes thanks.” When he woke up she gave it to him and pointed over towards us. He was still waking up and he put the drawing down then started reading again. A second later he picked up the drawing again and had another closer look. Then he came over to me and said “Did you do this? Have I to keep it? Do you mind if I use it in one of my books? Because that strikes me… as very convincing!” He must have kept it because it appeared among the illustrations to an article he had written for a publication a few years later. Unfortunately soon after that a gallery lost it.