Jane Harris sets her novel Gillespie and I at a time when Scotland felt it was ready for its close-up. The International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry took place in Glasgow from May to November in 1888 at Kelvingrove Park on the banks of the River Kelvin (image below, left). It was the country's bid for prominence in the industrial age, following the "world fair" model established by the enormously popular Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
Its main purpose was to highlight Scottish contributions to industry and applied science, especially to that which made Scotland a distinctive force of Empire: ship-building, engines, and ships' accommodations. Even the Orientalism of much of its architecture - the Main Building (image below, center) was called "Baghdad by the Kelvin" - was intended to favorably contrast Scotland to pre-industrial cultures.
City boosters counted 5.7 million tickets sold and raised enough money to build the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Promoting Scottish art was an ancillary goal of the Exhibition, and it helped cement the reputation of the so-called Glasgow Boys, a group of Scottish painters into which Jane Harris inserts the fictional Ned Gillespie.
The Glasgow Boys
In the 1880s, a group of painters, including Joseph Crawhall, Sir John Lavery, Sir James Guthrie, George Henry, and Edward Atkinson Hornel - known as The Glasgow Boys - set out to challenge the conservative Scottish art establishment. They are credited with introducing Impressionism to Scotland and were interested in developing new techniques of realism. They were also committed to naturalism, thus their focus on the rural life and character of their country.
For years they were overlooked in their home country, but when they began to win favor in other European cities, the Glasgow art establishment claimed them as their own. They were featured in the International Exhibition. In Gillespie and I, a painting of Ned's called By the Pond hangs in the Exhibition; Harris might have based it on James Guthrie's To Pastures New (image below, left).
Another Glasgow Boy, Sir John Lavery, won the coveted competition to paint Queen Victoria for the International Exhibition (image above, middle). The Glasgow Boys' success in the art world paved the way for many famous artists such as painter and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (painting above, right).
Top row: the River Kelvin, the grand entrance of the main building, a bazaar-like display of the Indian Court, from the University of Glasgow
Bottom row: Guthrie's To Pastures New, Lavery's The State Visit of Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888, Mackintosh's The Fort
This article is from the March 7, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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