The world of Glasgow Boy George Henry

An oil painting showing a woman and child in 19th century dress with pram in a park. Behind them is a pond with ducks, a small hill with trees and large houses
Nursemaid in Kelvingrove Park by George Henry, Rozelle House Galleries, Ayr, South Ayrshire Council. Art UK website| CC BY-NC-SA

This lovely painting, Nursemaid in Kelvingrove Park, helps transport us back to the Glasgow of the late 19th century and is a scene that would have been very familiar to the founder members of the Arlington Baths, many of whom lived in the Park district of the city.

The artist – George Henry – joined the Arlington Baths Club as member number 560 in August 1899.

Family background

George Henry was born in Irvine in March 1858, son of William Hendry (George dropped the ‘d’ from his surname) and Ann Cowan Fisher, who had married in the Parish of Sorn a year earlier. Sadly, William died of typhus before his son’s second birthday, and the 1861 census records George and Ann staying in Catrine with her mother Margaret, who was listed as a housekeeper. 

One of Ann’s younger brothers, George (born c. 1840) was also living there, working as a bleacher. Another brother, James (born c. 1835), was boarding in Glasgow with Mrs Thomas Thomson, a printer’s widow, and her family, at 4 Binnie Place in Calton, Glasgow. James had previously worked as a cotton bleacher in Catrine like his younger brother, but in Glasgow he was working as a warehouseman. Interestingly, an earlier census (1851) has Ann working as a power loom weaver, suggesting that she also worked in the Catrine cotton mills before her marriage.

Becoming an artist

By 1881, George, his mother Ann, and grandmother Margaret, had moved to Glasgow to stay with James at 4 Binnie Place, where he is now listed as Warehouseman (Sewed Muslin) and is the head of the household – Mrs Thomson appears to have moved elsewhere.

George was working as a draughtsman in a patent office and attending evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. It is thought that he first met some of the other “Glasgow Boys” in 1880 through the St Mungo Society, a club for young painters who were not yet admitted to the Glasgow Art Club. Sharing an interest in contemporary, rural subjects and often working out of doors, directly on to the canvas, some members spent the summer months painting together. In 1883 George Henry joined James Guthrie and Joseph Crawhall in Cockburnspath and a couple of years later he visited Kirkcudbright, painting alongside EA Hornel, who became a close friend. One of Henry’s most highly regarded works, A Galloway Landscape, was painted in 1889 while staying with Hornel in Kircudbright.

An oil painting showing black and white cows in a hilly green and brown landscape. There is s small river in the foreground
A Galloway Landscape by George Henry, (1899), Glasgow Museums. Art UK website | CC BY-NC-SA

Although the painting is now considered a key work of the Glasgow School, it’s flattened perspective, thickly applied, rich coloured paint and meandering ribbon of a river baffled and appalled many of the critics at the time. This interest in surface texture and the decorative elements of the scene seems to fly in the face of many of the Glasgow Boys (unwritten) ‘tenets’, and was taken even further in the large canvas he produced with EA Hornel the following year, The Druids.

A colourful painting showing a procession of men and women in cloaks with celtic symbols and gold jewllery, walking down from a hill in the moolight. There are also two white cows with mistletoe on their horns
The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe by Edward Atkinson Hornel and George Henry, (1890), Glasgow Museums. Art UK website | CC BY-NC-SA

This enigmatic, exotic picture also perplexed many, though one of the more perceptive critics wrote in the Saturday Review, “We suppose the masterpiece of the Glasgow School at the Grosvenor Gallery would be considered ‘The Druids’ due to the combined efforts of Mr G Henry and Mr Hornel. This is a very large square picture…..very startling and at first sight very ridiculous. But the eye becomes accustomed to its strange forms and hues, and by degrees begins to like them…….It is extraordinary, but it would be useless to deny that it is effective.”

Inspiration from Japan

The scale of the picture and strong colours used may well have been influenced by Henry and Hornel’s recent involvement with schemes for mural paintings at the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888. It’s also possible that their interest in decorative, linear composition had been inspired by the study of Japanese prints. The men knew Alexander Reid, the art dealer, and probably saw prints exhibited in his gallery, or from his extensive personal collection. There were also many Japanese artefacts in the Glasgow Museum – 31 wooden crates of ceramics, papers and textiles had been deposited there by the Japanese government in 1878, part of an exchange of items following on from the Iwakura Mission.

Whatever spurred their interest, the two men decided to make an extended visit to the country – an unusual and bold trip at the time – where they chose to live among local people in Tokyo, Nagasaki and Yokohama, which was not normally encouraged for Western visitors. For both artists, this trip would have a major influence on their art. 

In 1895, Alexander Reid who had helped finance the trip, offered Hornel an exhibition of his Japanese work – probably agreed in advance as part of his sponsorship. Henry, though, was unable to follow suit as many of his paintings became stuck together on the journey home, and had to be abandoned. In a letter to Hornel he wrote, “I have just got my canvases unrolled, and Oh Heaven’s what a result – I feel very sick. With a few exceptions, they are simply one mass of cracks…”

Our loss too, though some of the works that survived the voyage are now in Glasgow Museum’s Collection and can be seen at Kelvingrove, like the two illustrated below, Japanese Lady with a Fan and In a Japanese Garden, 1893/4.

Joining the Arlington Baths

By the time he joined the Arlington Baths in 1899, Henry was an established and successful artist. He gave his business address (his studio) as 2 West Regent Street. (No separate home address is recorded.)  We don’t know what drew him to join the club, but it is easy to imagine Henry feeling quite at home in the colours and light and of the Turkish Suite, possibly reminiscing about visits to the sentō, traditional Japanese communal bathhouses, during his eighteen-month sojourn in that country.

 No doubt the Arlington could also provide a steady stream of prosperous clients as he became increasingly focused on portraiture. Typical of his style at the time, this picture is of the wife of one of his better-known patrons, William Burrell.

A portrait of a older woman in 19th century clothes: a long black dress, a black hat and a fox fur cape over her shoulders. She is standing with her hand on the back of an old chair with the corner of a painting behind her
Mrs Burrell by George Henry, (1904), Glasgow Museums. Art UK | CC BY-NC-SA

The two members who proposed Henry for membership of the Arlington were Writers (lawyers), called R Clement Boyd and Philip B Simons. According to the Post Ofice Directory of 1899, Boyd was with Mackay & Boyd, and his home address was 2 Newton Terrace, while Simons was with Dickie & Simons and lived at 14 Queens Crescent.

From 1904 onwards, Henry spent most of his time in London, developing a successful business as a society portrait painter. He died in Kensington, London in 1943, but was buried in Cathcart Cemetery in a family plot with his grandmother, mother and uncle.

Researchers: Kay Bryant and Lindsay Rankin


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