Alexander Galt – known as ‘the human camera’ – was one of the 20th century’s Scottish master painters, but in his lifetime he eschewed the bright lights of society and actively discouraged purchasers, much to the detriment of that all-important thing in the art world – his reputation.
But now the paintings of this most private of artists are at last receiving recognition, as his estate is broken up.
Galt was born in Greenock in 1913, and lived until 2000. He was the seventh child of a Clydeside brass founder. Living off his father’s meagre wages, he enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art in 1930. It is said that several students teased him over his poverty and that often he was forced to make his own paints and use his hair to fashion brushes.
David Donaldson, his contemporary at school who later became Queen’s Limner in Scotland, was overawed by Galt’s draughtsmanship, once declaring: “He could draw like an angel.” Many of the Glasgow art teachers referred to Galt as “the human camera”.
On graduation, Galt won the Torrance Award for life painting, while his diploma studies toured the art schools of Scotland as examples to emulate. The sculptor Jacob Epstein befriended Galt in the 1930s, which helped the latter’s reputation. His work The Stable Boy was acquired by the Caird Museum bequest in Greenock, which caught the eye of the critic, James Agate. Through this, valuable introductions followed to both Sir Ulrich Alexander, Keeper of the Privy Purse and a noted benefactor, and to the Redfern Gallery.
Galt travelled to Paris on a Carnegie Scholarship in 1938, returning to teach at Greenock High School, prior to service in the RAF. From 1945 he became part-time tutor at Glasgow School of Art and then art master at Greenock High. It is an indication of the high esteem in which he was held by fellow artists that, when he felt obliged to resign from the Glasgow Arts Club because he could not afford the subscription, the committee allowed him to forgo the fees.
An elected member of the Royal Glasgow Institute, he had no time for the accompanying social life, preferring to listen to opera recordings and to lose himself in his paintings. Galt remained an active man until his death four years ago. A retrospective exhibition was held in Greenock in 2003 and a collection of Galt’s watercolours and drawings were shown in London the same year.
The Clyde – always a favourite subject for Galt – From Victoria Road, Greenock has also created much interest among visitors to Panter & Hall’s gallery, located in Mayfair.
In his day, Galt did not receive the recognition that was his due. After a prodigious early career, Galt slipped into relative obscurity due to the pressures of keeping a young family in the austerity of 1950’s Glasgow, and his experiences flying missions in the RAF.
Galt’s love of watery scenes is evident in Sailing on the Clyde, which depicts a yachting race. Already such studies have attracted the attention of curators of financial organisations, such as banks and life insurance firms who purchase considerable numbers of artworks for reception rooms and offices. By comparison, there are beautiful still life’s.
Duncan McMillan, The Scotsman’s art critic, said: “It will be interesting to see where this sale leads. It’s always a gamble with an artist such as Galt without a huge reputation or following to see if a market exists for their work, and some of these pieces have quite a high price tag. “I would say that they are quite popularist in nature, but the public seems to have appetite for this kind of work,” he added.