The Beginning of the Gable End: 50 Years on from the Glasgow Mural Scheme

How do you go about reinvigorating a city’s urban environment? Is it through a major infrastructure project, like the overhaul of the Clyde’s waterfront? Or with new ways of perceiving a ‘place’, seen in the Gorbals Crown Street Regeneration? Does the answer lie in being crowned European City of the Year, or host of the Commonwealth Games? Or could it be achieved with a pot of paint and a brush? 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Gable End Mural Scheme. Like the many regeneration projects that have come to define Glasgow’s cityscape, it sought to achieve the vision of a vibrant, thriving environment. But its chosen method was the humble mural. The scheme’s aim was simple: provide colour and intrigue to the tenements of Glasgow, for the people of Glasgow. A pilot run of four artworks was commissioned in 1974, funded by the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and steered by Tom McGrath, founder of the Third Eye Centre (now known as the CCA: Glasgow). The monumental paintings functioned to obscure the stark walls of Victorian tenements, partially demolished to make way for new roads incising the city’s centre. 

A year previous to the project’s inauguration, the Assistant Director of the SAC, William Buchanan, had his attention caught by a rumble of activity in the SoHo district of New York. Nicknamed ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’, SoHo’s rapid industrial decline had left the neighbourhood in flux. Yet loud, geometric designs began cropping up on the side of decrepit industrial buildings. Abstract works by the likes of Jason Crum, Tania and Mel Pakarsky

were funded directly by the City Walls Inc, a non-profit organisation founded in 1966. Rather than reflect local history in Social Realist paintings, the group decided to uplift with bright colour and engage through simple patterns. City Walls Inc. believed that art could be the intermediary between place and community – in the words of the organisation’s president Joan K. Davidson, the murals were ‘banners in the battle to make the city habitable for people‘.

Cofounder of the City Walls Inc, Tania’s 13-Storey Mural, West 3rd Street, New York, 1970. Mel Pezarsky mural on the side of a building in Soho, 1971 (above)

The similarities were clear. Glasgow’s industry had been in steady decline since the Second World War, the city was rife with social unrest and swathes of its population were living in poverty. Buchanan seized the opportunity to replicate the success witnessed across the Atlantic. SoHo’s reputation as an artistic hub had soared – as had the price tag for the murals of City Walls Inc., with works selling for up to $5,000 (around £25,000 if adjusted to inflation). In October 1973, Buchanan wrote to a number of Scotland’s budding young artists, including the Glasgow League of Artists, inviting them to submit a mural design in return for £150. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The responses expressed disillusionment at Glasgow’s art scene and a struggle to identify with the gallery. This rising generation of Scottish artists sought collaboration and democratic working methods. Hence, the act of creating for a community rather than an institution was undoubtedly an appeal. 

Map showing the locations of the Gable End Mural Scheme.

The selected artist’s subsequently chose the locations for each work: John Byrne’s Blue Sky Against Grey Sky in Partick; Jim Torrence’s Celtic Knot in Govanhill; Stan Bell’s Hex in St. George’s Cross and John McColl’s Klapa II in Balgreen. It was at this point that Buchanan departed from the project, leaving Tom McGrath to oversee its execution. McGrath took the helm in publicising the project, staging events at the Third Eye Centre and conducting interviews with STV during the painting of John Byrne’s mural. Articles appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times, ‘Scottish Artists Going Up the Wall’, and the Sunday Times, ‘The End – The Absolute (Gable) End!’ With each piece of press attention, McGrath’s statements had been crystal clear – this art was for the locals. 

Blue Sky Against Grey Sky John Byrne

Blue Sky Against Grey Sky – John Byrne

Celtic Knot Submission – Jim Torrence

Hex – Stan Bell

Klapa II – John McColl

Yet, what McGrath, nor the artists, could predict was how the locals would receive this addition to their landscape. Each location had been thrown into disarray by intruding motorways blighting the built environment. Would a contemporary artist really be welcomed in a community fractured by the M8? Could barren land next to the Clydeside Expressway become a haven? They were to find out on the 28th of August, 1974, when John Byrne ascended his ladder in Partick and set to work. 

Over the course of two weeks, Byrne and his assistants covered every inch of the gable end with cement-based paint. A ruddy cheeked boy in Victorian garb appeared, perched on a snarling spotted dog, a loose reference to Unionist murals of William of Orange in Northern Ireland. Clouds, butterflies, ribbon trims, pearl buttons and a yellow bird were added – it was a quintessential work of John Byrne frivolity. On the eve of its grand unveiling, a final addition was made, though not from the artist’s hand. ‘Painter put your brush away, the Tiny Partick are here to stay!’ was sprawled across the lower section of the wall. Acts of graffiti had been a well discussed threat. Byrne had nonchalantly commented to STV that it was ‘up to the vandals themselves’ once the work was left to the community. The jeering words were hastily covered, but the Tiny Partick were not deterred – ‘The painter’s work was all in vain, the Tiny Partick strike again!’. 

Blue Sky Against Grey Sky

Klapa-II – John McColl (fire breather at opening)

The exchange was a comical act by sceptical locals, but it also called attention to the scheme’s shortcomings. Scottish geographer Joanne Sharpe’s description of vandalism as ‘illustrative of the liveliness as well as death of this place’ rang true in the rhymes of the Tiny Partick. The scrawled words were a prophecy. The locals were aware of the imminent threat of the wrecking ball, waiting to knock down the remaining tenements. They were ‘here to stay’ but the toil of the artists, project coordinators and most significantly, the murals, were ‘all in vain’. Within two years, John Byrne’s Blue Sky Against Grey Sky was demolished. 

Photograph of Klapa-II with fire breather, Bellgrove, 1975. Glasgow’s 13 week bin strikes in 1975, John Byrne’s Blue Sky Against Grey Sky behind.

By painting over Tiny Partick’s retorts, the scheme’s organisers had made their distinction between art and vandalism abundantly clear. In doing so, the uneasy relationship between the community and the council was put on display. The tenement gable ends were selected by the artists without input from the bordering occupants. The Scottish Arts Council had sanctioned these spaces and subsidised resources with state funds, but had designated the locals a passive role – they were to enjoy the artist’s creation, not to participate in its making. 

The remaining three murals, painted in the following year, told a similar tale. Each one brought renewed attention, yet the reception was not always as intended. John McColl’s geometric robot form was inspired by his interest in Glasgow’s declining industry and the prospect of technological innovation. However, Klapa-II was affectionately nicknamed ‘the frog’ by Bellgrove locals, shortly after it was presented to the community. Celtic Knot, Jim Torrence’s addition to Annandale Street in the city’s Southside, was a celebration of Scottish Flora and Fauna. Thistles, reeds and dandelions create a symbolic ‘knot’, inspired by Insular Art, connoting the fortitude and longevity of the Scottish nation. It was a work to inspire a sense of place, identity and belonging, yet, no image of the finished mural exists in the archives of the scheme. Its image is preserved only in the memory of those who came to encounter the piece.

Following the pilot, the Gable End Mural Scheme continued until 1979, with thirty murals recorded in this period. With the onset of the 1980s, the inauguration of Thatcher and a tightening of the purse strings for arts funding, the scheme folded due to a lack of financial backing. So, was it successful? It certainly achieved its initial goal to brighten up tenement walls. Each artwork is distinct, inventive and thought provoking. But the artworks never attracted investment like in Soho, or escaped their impending demolition. Graffiti, diminishing media interest and a bemused reception from locals would suggest the pilot was ineffective in conjuring an enduring relationship between the artworks and the community. Yet, as you amble around Glasgow 50 years on, murals old and new line the streets. The Scottish Arts Council had sown the seed, but for it to prosper, the people of Glasgow had to assume control. The scheme’s contemporary success was undoubtedly limited, but the legacy of these first gable end murals endures for a cityscape now alive with colour.  

Tim Armstrong, Red Black and Green, Maryhill, 1977

Billy Connolly Mural, Dixon Street, 2017

Molly Hankison, Untitled, Purdon Street, Partick, 2022

List of Artworks:

Cofounder of the City Walls Inc, Tania’s 13-Storey Mural, West 3rd Street, New York, 1970. Mel Pezarsky mural on the side of a building in Soho, 1971.
Map showing the locations of the Gable End Mural Scheme.
The final four murals, left to right: John Byrne, Jim Torrence’s submission, Stan Bell and John McColl.
John Byrne’s submission for the scheme, 1975. The Dowie Brothers’ mural of William of Orange, Derry, 1968.
Photograph of Klapa-II with fire breather, Bellgrove, 1975. Glasgow’s 13 week bin strikes in 1975, John Byrne’s Blue Sky Against Grey Sky behind.
Left to Right: Tim Armstrong, Red Black and Green, Maryhill, 1977; Rogue One, Billy Connolly Mural, Dixon Street, 2017;
Molly Hankison, Untitled, Purdon Street, Partick, 2022.

Comments (9)

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  1. Annie Morgan says:

    Would love to see Govan’s murals included-the Daffodil one at Riverside Ode to Govan’s ‘ daffodil ‘king’ -Peter Barr -son of Govan -rode through Spain and Portugal on a donkey, sleeping under rocks.His legacy remains.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    These are art works which increased the general happiness and continue to do so. Like the statue of Lobey Dosser and Rank Bajin riding on El Fideldo on Woodlands Road, passers-by smile. And that is a good thing.

  3. Duncan MacLaren says:

    Odd there was no mention of the fantastic murals of St Mungo as a sort of Tom Weir on High Street or his Mum , St Enoch, round the corner as mother and child (George Street). The mural above the Ingram Street car park of wildlife in Glasgow, the subject of many a tourist’s phone click, is in danger of disappearing if large buildings are placed in front of it rather than a People’s Park as residents like myself wanted.

    1. Duncan MacLaren says:

      I looked at Penny Anderson’s comment on the murals I referred to and she obviously doesn’t understand the symbolism contained within them both. The mural of St Enoch (as St Thenue is more generally known by Glaswegians) is only ‘saccharine’ if you believe motherhood is! The reason there is a robin in St Mungo’s mural is because in the hagiography of this saint he was so sorry that some of his fellow novice monks had killed the bird that he touched it with love and it was resurrected and flew off. What did Penny want? Olly Alexander in hotpants? As for the animal mural, it is a huge tourist draw and beloved by the people who live round here so much that there was a huge campaign to have a park open to all on the site so that we locals and guests could admire the wildlife in the city as painted on the City Hall wall. What’s there not to love?

  4. SleepingDog says:

    In computer game Watch Dogs: Legions, set in a near-future London
    your rebels can use buildings as canvases for their subversive street art, each guerilla installation of which helps turn the local population to revolt against corrupt corporate authorities. I suppose their are synergistic opportunities to bleed from physical to virtual urban spaces. If someone wanted to create a virtual Glasgow gameworld, maybe some of these murals (even those lost, overshadowed or degraded) to live again in polychrome glory.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      There is already a 3D Urban Model provided by Glasgow’s Open Data programme.
      I have seen a similar model of ancient Rome used in online teaching (as well as models of Rome used in games). There are web 3D technologies that would allow basic manipulations of such models in a (desktop) web browser, maybe even smartphone augmented reality and so forth. You could even get collaborations, some people adding image artwork, others snarky graffitti comments on top. No paint, brushes, rickety scaffolds and police chases in the dead of night required.

  5. Wul says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article. I enjoyed reading & looking at this. These art works bring a lot of life.

  6. Lois Rogers says:

    This is an amazing piece of research – finding the pictures of these long-forgotten and brilliant artworks, must have been a major undertaking. The Glasgow initiative of the 1970s also raises the continuing problem of ensuring community art engages the community receiving it

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