James Kay, 1858-1942

James Kay is one of the outstanding artists whose work is in the Scottish Colourist tradition. He was born on the Isle of Arran, the son of a naval man; the Scottish landscape, the coast, the sea and its busy ports remained vital themes in his paintings for all his working life.

Kay moved to Glasgow, becoming a clerk in an insurance office, in 1881. It was not long, however, before he determined to chart a new direction and attended the Glasgow School of Art. There, Kay may well have met his contemporary and fellow Scot, George Henry, who also studied at the GSA for a short period in the early 1880s. This was not yet the School which nurtured the talents of artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald. Nevertheless, Glasgow was rapidly becoming a rich, industrial city with a developing cultural identity which was separate from that of its more established rival, Edinburgh: Kay and his peers must have been aware of this exciting milieu - and of one another. From the summer of 1879, when James Guthrie, Edward Walton and Joseph Crawhall (from Northumberland) worked together at Rosneath on the Clyde, the ‘Glasgow Boys’ began to cohere as a group of like-minded artists. In the summer of 1881, George Henry joined the trio, painting at Brig o’ Turk, in the Trossachs; in 1883 and for the next two summers, the location was Cockburnspath, on the coast, near the Scottish borders. Artists came and went; but what distinguished them was their concern to react against the conventions of the Royal Scottish Academy, in Edinburgh, with its archetypal highland cattle and romantic landscapes.

The Glasgow Boys were inspired by a number of significant artistic developments. They admired French art and responded with particular enthusiasm to the rural Realism and fresh, outdoor colour of Jules Bastien-Lepage; not surprisingly, many of them went on to study in Paris. They also admired the deft, tonal subtleties of James McNeill Whistler’s work, then the talk of the town in London.

And what about James Kay? He shared friendship and influences with the Glasgow Boys. His studio was in Glasgow and, in the early years, he worked there with Stuart Park and David Gauld, both of whom were attached to the Glasgow Boys. Over the years, he exhibited at the same places - the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts[1], the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy[2]. Kay, Henry, Walton and E.A. Hornel[3] were even amongst those who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1910. But Kay always remained deliberately on the periphery. Whereas all of the others, almost without exception, avoided the busy, gritty streets and ports of the real Glasgow, Kay continued to relish these subjects[4]. The Glasgow Boys turned to an almost elegiac reflection on the rural past; James Kay developed a reputation for painting the everyday life of the countryside. Several of the Glasgow Boys travelled widely, exploring exotic places: Japan[5], Spain, the Middle East and North Africa[6]. Kay also travelled, but around Scotland and in western Europe. It was not the exotic subject or brilliant light which attracted him, but the subtleties and contrasts he saw in the softer, more variegated light of the familiar countryside and expanding cities.

James Kay was an artist of independent mind. He drew on many of the same influences as his contemporaries, but he moulded them to his own vision. His compositions tend to be very tightly-constructed, revealing his clever manipulation of perspective and space; his touch is dynamic and often built up in dense, overlapping layers of crusty impasto[7]; the lively quality of his work tends to be conveyed in an array of closely-allied tones which are, in turn, darkly subtle and sparkling. His work is easily identifiable and it often seems to have a quality which is tough, resistant to an easy gaze, demanding close inspection.

In 1909, whilst retaining his Glasgow studio, Kay moved to a house called ‘Crimea’[8], in Whistlefield, overlooking Loch Long, some 30 miles NW of Glasgow. Two years later, he married. His daughter, Violet – who followed her father’s footsteps and also became an artist – was born in 1914. From this time onwards, the rugged Scottish landscape became a more frequent subject, joining the images of France, London - and, of course, Glasgow. When Kay died, in ‘Crimea’, he had become very well known, having been elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1939 and exhibited very widely.

The Glasgow Herald, writing, in October, 1942, of the 81st exhibition of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, remarked the paintings of James Kay, who had just died.

‘James Kay was a colourist whose pictures have interested and enlivened many observers, and his colour harmonies became more mellow as he advanced in years, as may be seen in such works as “Jetty, Havre” – full of life and breeziness’.

‘Life and breeziness’ - more often than not, Scottish life and Scottish breeziness: these words, and everything they conjure, remain an apt evocation of James Kay, the real Glasgow Boy, and his oeuvre.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012


[1] This was established in 1861. Its provocative ambition was to cultivate the artistic taste of the hard-headed Glasgow businessmen. In 1877, the Corporation of Glasgow declined to let the Corporation Galleries to the Institute any longer; new galleries were built and opened by the Institute in 1880.

[2] Kay’s first picture at the Royal Academy, in 1889, was Towed into Harbour on the Clyde. Later successes included the 1903 Toil and Grime and the 1907 Launch of the Lusitania. Toil & Grime was awarded a Silver Medal at the Société des Amis des Arts in Rouen. The Lusitania was purchased by the Corporation of Glasgow and can be seen in the Glasgow Museums Collection. When the Lusitania was launched in the summer of 1906, she became the largest ship afloat and was designed to be the last word in speed and luxury, offering passengers a swift trip across the Atlantic. She was lost to a German U-boat in 1915.

[3] Hornel met Henry in 1885 and was thus introduced to the Glasgow Boys.

[4] Painting the dirty city of Glasgow really was radical: Ian Jack remarks that, ‘in Glasgow the black Clyde stank and the sunshine, when it came, had to struggle through the near-permanent fug of carbon particles sent into the air by forges, rolling mills, ships, gasworks, shunting steam locomotives, and household fires’. See Jack’s excellent review of the 2010 exhibition, Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys, at the RA., The Guardian, 30.10.10.

[5] Henry and Hornel were amongst the first European artists to visit Japan, in 1893-4.

[6] For Arthur Melville, in particular, western Europe was not sufficiently inspiring. He first set off for Egypt in 1880, subsequently visiting North Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe. John Lavery first arrived in Tangier in 1891 and continued to make regular visits until 1920.

[7] Kay also worked a good deal in pastel, gouache and watercolour, sometimes mixing the media for one picture.

[8] The name was to commemorate Kay’s father, who had served in the Crimea. Kay painted a mural of the Crimean War on the walls of his house.