My Gray City


From cover of Poor Things, Alasdair Gray, 1992

by Hannah Hughes

Alasdair Gray at the The Hidden Lane Gallery,
Glasgow, Scotland,
May – June 2017

I was eighteen years old when I was introduced to the fascinating world of Alasdair Gray. I read Poor Things (1992) in the second year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow, a novel of fantasy and science fiction in which Gray reinvents a Frankenstein narrative in Victorian Glasgow. Godwin Baxter (a medical student and inventor) lives at Park Circus, where he resurrects the body of a woman he retrieved from the Clyde at Glasgow Green. The place names, illustrations and maps of Glasgow contained within the pages of Poor Things enchanted me as a young Scot. It was rare that I read fiction set in my home city and for the first time, I saw Glasgow as a place of mystery and intrigue. I marched up the steep hill to the top of Kelvingrove Park, to reach Godwin Baxter’s terraced house where, in the garden, he had that all important conversation with McCandless about the black and white rabbits, Mopsy and Flopsy. I almost expected to catch a glimpse of the monstrous Baxter through a window. I wanted the eerie Victorian Glasgow to be my Glaswegian reality.

However, Poor Things was simply a taster, albeit a tremendous one, of the local in Gray’s work. He is an artist who uses his roots as compelling inspiration in his work, from the setting for his fiction, the site for his mythological and religious murals and his writing on Scottish politics. At the Hidden Lane Gallery in Finnieston, the relationship between Alasdair Gray and Glasgow goes on with Inprint, an exhibition featuring twenty three signed and limited edition prints by the artist. From his website, it appears Gray hopes the show will be an opportunity to make his work more affordable and share it with more people.

When one does enter the gallery, which was originally a hearse garage, the artwork is not all there is to see. The space, which covers two floors, was crowded with furniture, exhibition catalogues from previous shows and postcard stands. Gray’s prints were not only on the walls but in abundant piles throughout the gallery. The disordered environment, paired with low ceilings reminds one of the historic ‘wunderkammern’ or Cabinet of Curiosities that stands in stark contrast to a contemporary minimalist gallery. These original exhibitions, known also as ‘wonder rooms’ were spaces of intrigue, containing a collection of objects that were not yet completely understood to their Renaissance audience. Collectors hoped to recognise the similarities or differences between the objects, both in visible and invisible terms. It was believed, in gaining a better understanding of the collection, one might better relate to humanity’s place in the world.

Snakes and Ladders from 1972 features the well known Scottish poet and playwright, Liz Lochhead. The writer lounges on a Persian rug and smokes a cigarette. In the background, the silhouette of a cat faces away from the spectator. Both Lochhead and the cat appear somewhat distracted, as if Gray spontaneously started working on them. The intimacy involved in the image can be identified in many of Gray’s portraits on display in the gallery. He very often deals with friends and lovers in a domestic Glasgow setting, making for a comforting and bohemian image. However, Inprint features a variety of Gray’s work from The Cardplayers which Gray painted at school to the artwork for his novel Lanark, published in 1981.

If the Renaissance wunderkammern aimed to provide a better understanding of one’s place in the world, Gray’s artwork presents an unmistakable way in which to experience Glasgow. During the Renaissance, the wunderkammern also provided creative inspiration for those living at the time. The visible similarity between the prints on show at the Hidden Lane lies in Gray’s familiar style of bold lines and painstaking detail that has became a Glasgow staple but the invisible similarity is more personal. Gray creates a certain perspective of Glasgow that is eerily Gothic yet comforting and fun. When I look at his work, I experience the same allusions I felt when I read Poor Things for the first time.

About the Author:

Hannah Hughes is a Glaswegian writer who received her education  at the University of Glasgow and in New York at the University at Albany. Not long graduated, she studied English Literature and History of Art. She enjoys writing about her experiences of viewing art and also writes fiction. She is currently living in Glasgow and working in the library at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and with the street food company, ‘Chompsky.’