Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Israel Zangwill > Text of Glasgow

An essay by Israel Zangwill


Title:     Glasgow
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

"And what do you think of Glasgow?" said the pretty lady interviewer--I have the right to say she was pretty because she said in print that I wasn't. I replied that of course Glasgow wasn't pretty but--and here would have followed an amiable dissertation upon the municipal superiority of Glasgow. "But," hastily interrupted the lady interviewer, "have you seen the fine vista of St. Vincent Street, the Great Western Road, the finest thoroughfare in Europe, the charming residential districts of Pollokshields West and Dowanhill, the wide view from the South Side Park or picturesque Camphill?" I tried to edge in an abashed "No," for a monosyllable is the most one can hope to secure of the conversation in an interview; but the pretty lady interviewer went on reproachfully: "Have you seen that stately hill of the dead, the Necropolis, from Cathedral Square? It is itself a quaint and beautiful medley of architecture past and present. Have you seen beautiful Kelvingrove, through which flows the classic Kelvin? In many world-famous cities have I been and yet seen nothing more beautiful than the view on one side of Partick Bridge." I apologised to Glasgow, inwardly confounding the eminent Scotch _litterateur_ who had assured me that Glasgow was the most loathsome den north of Tweed, almost the only such den,--his malison upon Glasgow! But although I feel personally nothing but gratitude to Glasgow and its noisy University students, I cannot honestly award it the apple for beauty. After all it is the centre of the town that one naturally gravitates to, and no charm of suburbs can remove the general impression of commercial dinginess.

No, Glasgow must be content with its wealth and its public spirit. If it does not stir the imagination like Edinburgh, it satisfies the brain and the heart, for it is grappling manfully with many social problems, with the opening of parks and hospitals, and especially with the housing of the poor, and is developing an artistic conscience to boot. It owns its gas and water, and I had the felicity of meeting the Lord Provost at the very moment when, his glittering insignia heaving with emotion on his joyous breast, he had to announce to the Town Council that the fiercely-canvassed step of taking over the tramways had resulted in a balance to the good. When the Lord Provost had returned to his chair, I was shown the Councillors themselves at their mahogany tables, in their beautiful Council-chamber, and I made notes--not of the debate, as the lynx-eyed reporter, who counted the number of times I sucked my pencil, imagined--but of the improved appearance of George Square under snow. Seen through the windows the square stretched away pure and beautiful the gloomy statues blanched and Prince Albert's horse gleaming proudly with white trappings. The Municipal Buildings deserve all the praise they have received. The special staircase, which is used only on state occasions, presents from point to point a marvellously proportioned medley of arches and pillars and arcades, with a dominant Corinthian note. It is really "frozen music." And when adorned with tropical plants and lit up with electric lights and pretty faces, it must indeed be a superb sight. Very imposing, too, is the vast Banqueting Hall, from whose platform, to test the acoustic effect of the rows of wires stretched six inches apart under the ceiling to break the sound, I addressed vacancy. The panels of this hall still await their artists. 'T is a rare opportunity for Glasgow to emulate the Parisian Pantheon; and, indeed, there is so much art-work to be done in Glasgow that one begins to understand why it is threatening to become the capital of British Art. The best road in Scotland is no longer that which leads to England. It was curious for a humble author to walk these stately halls, convoyed by courteous officers in red swallow-tails, and to rub shoulders with civic millionaires. An awesome air of wealth hung over the men and the place, a crushing suggestion of vast enterprises, of engineering and railway building and the running of steamers, a subtle aroma of colossal fortunes, wrested from the world by the leverage of an initial half-crown. I have often gone to places with only half a crown in my pocket, but it never seemed to lead to anything. So I surveyed these men with blended reverence and bewilderment, wondering why they bothered themselves to make all that money, and whether they ever suspected they were but tools in the hands of destiny, by whose marvellous alchemy the self-centred ambition of the individual is transmuted to the service of the world. The genial Bailie Simons, who was my host--fancy living in daily contact with a Bailie!--informed me that the grave city fathers are sadly degenerating. Thirty years ago they did not smoke in public: now there is a smoking-room in the sacred building itself; and at least one of them has been seen to leave it in a white hat.

Like the king's daughter, Glasgow is all glorious within, and its inner artistic aspirations make up for and are perhaps inversely inspired by its outer unloveliness. The world must not judge Glasgow's taste by the recent Puritanic rumpus over the nude. The worthy Bailies and the Chief Constable who drew the line at Leighton and Solomon have overlooked the interesting nudities in their own Galleries. The affinity of the Scotch and the French, which has often been noted in history, and which accounts for their swamping the English in literature, has made Style the watchword of the Glasgow School of Art. Whistler's "Carlyle" hangs in the Corporation Galleries, and it was the stylist, Lavery, who secured the tedious commission to commemorate Her Majesty's opening of the Glasgow Exhibition by the usual plethora of portraits. It would have made a more interesting picture had Mr. Lavery perpetuated the fact--so pregnant a contribution to the philosophy of Exhibitions--that a profit of L10,000 was derived from the switchbacks. The picture would then have made a nice supplement to Mr. Lavery's famous studies of "Croquet" and "Tennis." The very slabs of the Corporation staircase are infected with Impressionism, and their natural veinings body forth, here a charge of cavalry, there a march of infantry, and yonder a portrait of Sir William Vernon Harcourt with a prophetic coronet. The stones of Glasgow await their Ruskin. The Exhibition which I saw at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts was far more interesting than the last Academy, though it contained some of the same pictures. I was able to tell the Scotch artists an anecdote which no one had heard before, for the simple reason that it was true, and that it happened to me. It was in Perth that, puzzling over a grimy statue, I was accosted by a bare-footed newsboy with his raucous cry of "Hair-r-ald, Glasgow Hair-r-ald!"

"I'll take one," quoth I, "if you'll tell me whose statue that is."

"'T is Rabbie Burns" replied he, on the nail.

"Thank you," said I, taking the paper. "And what did he do, to deserve the statue?"

My newsboy scratched his head. Perceiving his embarrassment, a party of his friends down the street called out in stentorian chorus: "Ay, 't is Babbie Burns."

"But what did he do to deserve the statue?" I thundered back. They hung their heads. At last my newsboy recovered himself; his face brightened. "Well?" said I again, "what did he do to deserve this statue?"

"He _deed_!" answered the intelligent little man.

Another newsboy, whom I asked if he had ever read Sir Walter Scott, replied, "No, he is _ower dreich_ (over dry)."

Talking of statues, I see that Paisley is going to erect a full-sized figure of the late Thomas Coats, with a bronze high hat under his bronze arm. The history of the Corporation Art Galleries is curious. The nucleus of the collection is the bequest of a coach-builder, who seems to have had a Glaswegian Renaissance all to himself, for it was years after his death before his legacy was routed out from the lumber-rooms to which it had been consigned, and ere its many genuine treasures were catalogued by Mr. James Paton, the learned curator, whose magic-lantern exhibit the other day of the coach-building connoisseur's face was the first display of his lineaments to an ungrateful posterity. The Galleries now claim to contain so many Old Masters that no connoisseur is complete without a knowledge of them. Except Velasquez, there is scarcely one of the great painters who is not represented here, even including Giorgione, of whom, parodying Hegel's remark about the one disciple who understood him ("and he doesn't understand me!"), it may be said that there are only two genuine specimens of him in the world, and that both of these are by his pupils. What Mary Logan would say to these Rembrandts and Rubenses I know not; but there is much of indisputable value in this collection, to say nothing of Flaxman's masterpiece--the statue of Pitt,--or the recent accessions, such as the Whistler, or David Murray's "Fir Faggots," or the bust of Victor Hugo by Rodin.

Pictorially the hill of the dead was the most interesting part of Glasgow I saw--a scene which, especially in its simple severe Protestant draping of snow, might well tempt the artist. At its summit John Knox looks down upon the Cathedral, whose altars and images were broken during the Reformation, and whose new stained windows (made in Germany) testify by their preference for Old Testament subjects to the latent Puritanism of Caledonia. Especially interesting is the crypt, with its sepulchral church, whose subterranean service is recorded in "Rob Roy." One of the pillars of the crypt proper is called the Rob Roy pillar, for behind it the great outlaw is supposed to have hidden. Near it is the shrine of St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow, who has presumably risen in the hierarchy now that Glasgow has been made a county. Facing the shrine is a window decorated with a portrait of Edward Irving, clothed as St. John the Baptist. The cicerone said it was greatly admired because the eyes followed you about wherever you walked. This is not the first time I have been asked to admire as supreme art what is really one of the commonest of optical delusions. After the Cathedral had closed, it had to be reopened because I had lost a glove within. After a careful search the glove was found in the gloomy crypt, pointing its finger at this miraculous picture, unable to tear itself away. But perhaps the most characteristic thing I came across in Glasgow was an inscription at the end of the bridge leading to the picturesque cemetery. "The adjoining bridge was erected by the Merchants' House of Glasgow to afford a proper entrance to their new cemetery, combining convenient access to the grounds with suitable decoration to the venerable Cathedral and surrounding scenery, to unite the tombs of many generations who have gone before with the resting-places destined for generations yet unborn, where the ashes of all shall repose until the rising of the just, when that which is born a natural body shall be raised a spiritual body, when this corruptible must put on incorruption, when this mortal must put on immortality, when death is swallowed up in victory." There you have Glasgow! An auctioneer's advertisement blent with an edifying sermon, a happy combination of commerce and Christianity, making the best of this world and the next.

I left Glasgow in a choking yellow fog. Five minutes from the city the train steamed into bright sunshine, which continued till five minutes from London, where a sisterly yellow fog was waiting. As Tennyson sings, I had gone "from the night to the night."

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Glasgow