Glasgow Girl painting hard to acquire

The Arts
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Bessie_MacNicol_Lady_with_a_FanA PAINTING by the famous ‘Glasgow Girl’ artist Bessie MacNicol — who had many links with Helensburgh —  changed hands in April 2011.

But purchaser Jim Smith, who enlisted the help of Helensburgh Heritage Trust in his quest to buy the painting entitled ‘Lady with a Fan’, had some difficulty in completing the acquisition.

Bessie MacNicol was perhaps the most important woman painter in Glasgow at the start of the 20th century, but died tragically at the age of 34. 

She was born in Glasgow in 1869, the daughter of a schoolmaster, and attended Glasgow School of Art from 1887 until 1892. Next she studied art in Paris at the Academie Colarossi and in 1893 exhibited at the Royal Academy.

When she came back to Glasgow, Bessie moved back into the family home and by 1896 had acquired a studio in St Vincent Street.

That year she spent time in Kirkcudbright, a small town popular with Glasgow artists including E.A.Hornel, whose portrait she painted around this time.

In 1899 she married and moved to live with her husband in Hillhead where she had a large studio at the back of the house. She exhibited in London, several European cities, and at Pittsburg and St Louis in the USA.

The fascinating story of Bessie MacNicol was researched and privately published in 1998 in a beautifully illustrated book by Helensburgh artist and fine art historian Ailsa Tanner, who died in 2001, entitled ‘Bessie MacNicol, New Woman’.

At the time Ailsa said: “I first became interested in Bessie’s work when I was on the staff of Glasgow Art Gallery at Kelvingrove, and saw works by her, not hanging on the walls but tucked away in the stores.

“This happened in 1954-5 when my mother was still alive. She is herself now recognised as a ‘Glasgow Girl’, and she reinforced my interest by remembering Bessie’s work exhibited in Glasgow at the beginning of the century.

“In 1976 I was able to exhibit ten of her paintings in a loan exhibition ‘West of Scotland Women Artists’ along with the annual exhibition of Helensburgh and District Art Club.

“I am proud to have been able to show so many of her paintings together for the first since her untimely death in 1904. In 1976 forgotten women artists were being rediscovered, and an important large exhibition was shown in Los Angeles.

“I found many connections between Bessie and Helensburgh. One of her closest women friends, Jenny Blackwood Brown, lived here, and in 1897 her future husband, Dr Alexander Frew, lived at Glendevon in William Street.

“His portrait was painted by her, probably in the cottage studio behind the house with its north facing window. She also painted his Helensburgh friends John Rennie and William Lamont.

“Her early death at the age of 34 robbed Scotland of a fine artist. She died in childbirth, and tragically two of her last paintings were titled ‘Motherhood’ and ‘Baby Crawford’.”

At the time of her death the Glasgow Herald art critic wrote: `’So brilliant was her work and of such promise that it is felt that her premature death has robbed Scotland of one who would have left a name worthy to rank with the best of her artist sons.”

Jim-and-Agnes-Smith-wBlantyre man Jim Smith, who collects Scottish paintings and pottery, shared Ailsa’s admiration for Bessie’s work, and he contacted the Heritage Trust in March looking for help in tracking down who was selling ‘Lady with a Fan’. 

It was painted in 1904 and is of a model known only as Deborah.

He discovered that the painting had been put up for auction at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh in December 2009 but was not sold.

Jim said: “My wife Agnes and I had read Ailsa Tanner’s book, and we saw this work on the internet and thought it was a lovely painting.

“I thought there might be a chance of buying it as it did not sell at auction — and Bessie MacNicol paintings don’t come up for auction very often.”

The Trust discovered that the painting was also put up for sale at Sotheby’s in London last April at £3-5,000, and this enabled Jim, with the help of John Green of John Green Fine Arts, eventually to track down the vendor.

After much coming and going with Sotheby’s, Jim and his wife were able to view the painting at their premises in Edinburgh.

However the negotiations over price then stalled, and Jim pulled out of the purchase. But a week later a solicitor in Dundee contacted him and offered it at a fixed price.

He was able to buy it for a sum within the Sotheby’s price range from an Edinburgh man whose name was never disclosed. Now the painting has pride of place in his collection.