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The Glasgow Girls: Scottish Art Nouveau

The presence of Art Nouveau is unmissable in Glasgow, a city which acted as the beating heart of the movement in the UK. The Glasgow School of Art, under new headmaster Fra Newbury, began accepting more and more female applicants, leading to the rise of ‘The Glasgow Girls’. Newbury held a progressive viewpoint for someone within the elite circles of UK Art Schooling and improved the GSA significantly during his post. His focus was on broadening access to art education, nurturing artists into the international sphere, and developing their standing within their own city. Whilst there were several of the Glasgow Girls, I lack the space to do them all justice and will therefore focus on my personal favourites, Jessie M King and Frances Macdonald. 

Jessie Marion King, born in 1875, entered her education at GSA in 1892 and was an award-winning student during her time. King worked in many modes and is most commonly known for illustrating hundreds of books. However, King held a great appreciation and love for wearable art, creating ethereal jewellery designs which were sold at Liberty London and publishing her own book on Batik fabric design, entitled ‘How Cinderella Was Able to Go to the Ball’. King moved to Paris and it was there that her artistic strength grew rapidly as she moved amongst European art communities, winning prizes in Turin and London for her work. 

Frances Macdonald, whilst also being a core ‘Glasgow Girl’ was part of ‘The Four’; Charles Rennie MacIntosh, James Herbert McNair, and her sister Margaret Macdonald. The two sisters were continually overshadowed by the Macintosh and McNair however developed a close working relationship which can be seen through the similarities in their style. Margaret went on to marry MacIntosh and Francis married McNair. Born in 1873, she enrolled in GSA in 1891, a year before King, and set up a joint studio for textiles, prints, and paintings with her sister. Exhibitions of her work outside of Glasgow include Liverpool, Turin, and Vienna.

Drawing a direct comparison between the two, both King and Macdonald have illustrated a version of Willaim Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere. The differences in their style can be seen, with Macdonald taking a darker, more coloured and hazy approach than King, who opted for black and white clean cut illustrations. The similarities, however, are also visibly apparent with floral imagery, flowing lines of hair, and mystical figuring. The Glasgow Style is firmly unmissable in both of their works and shows the strength of style that these women were developing alongside each other. Macdonald’s illustrations can be viewed online at the University of Buffalo archives, and King’s illustrated version of the text can be seen in person at our own university archives. 

The representation of the feminine figure within the art of both King and Macdonald holds a mystical strength. The women are often depicted with flowing hair, robes, and floral decorations. This style links neatly with the pre-raphaelite movement which saw a return to the figuring of the divine feminine and also the developing subject of the New Woman in 19th-century art. The New Woman as a subject, explored the changing perception of women in society and celebrated their growing strength. The Glasgow Girls very much epitomise this move in both what they create and how they create, and the recognition of this is yet to reach common art history knowledge. 

The Glasgow School of Art building, which has famously caught fire twice in the last decade, acts as a definitive marker of the Art Nouveau on the architectural design of Glasgow and is currently under reconstruction. Looking past the iconic art school building and into the finer details of the city, the influence of The Glasgow Girls can be seen almost everywhere and flows seamlessly into other global art movements. However, in writing this article I noticed that there is not a permanent exhibition for all of these women in Glasgow, and I think this needs to change. I am hopeful for an exhibition in the future which would culminate the work of the Scottish female artists who shaped 19th-century Glasgow, honouring them as a permanent fixture of their own city.

Image from University of St Andrews Special Collections

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