Alasdair Gray's Glasgow Triumph of Death

Glasgow Triumph of Death (Fall of Star Wormwood) by Alasdair Gray, a record £34,000 at Lyon & Turnbull.

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Gray has been hailed as a key figure in the ‘renaissance’ of Scottish literature, centred around his native Glasgow in the late 20th century. After the publication of his celebrated novel Lanark in 1981, he developed a large body of fans some of whom went on to become followers and collectors of his visual art.

In terms of his art, which stretches back to the early 1950s when he studied design and mural painting at Glasgow School of Art and then worked as a secondary school art teacher, he has gained some extra attention since he died four years ago. Seven of the top 10 prices for the artist at auction have been recorded since his death.

The latest sign of growing interest came when a group of 14 lots appeared at Lyon & Turnbull (26/25% buyer’s premium) in Edinburgh on January 10, with all nine of the lots that sold going to separate buyers. The selection came from a number of different private vendors including some friends of the artist who received the works as gifts.

The highlight, as expected, was the monumental painting Glasgow Triumph of Death (Fall of Star Wormwood) which was billed as a ‘masterwork’ by the auction house.

A 6ft 7in x 11ft 6in (2.01 x 3.49m) signed oil on canvas, it was painted in 1957, the year he left Glasgow School of Art, and had been in private hands since it was first exhibited.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the picture came about after Gray was invited to participate in a special exhibition at the Glasgow McLellan Gallery titled Artists Against the Bomb – a topic that had become especially pressing with the announcement that Holy Loch, just up the west coast from Glasgow, would become a base for a US nuclear arsenal.

Gray produced his enormous painting with the grisly chaos of war and death portrayed in vivid colour and including notable Glasgow landmarks like the cathedral, the Royal Infirmary and St Enoch station (the settings also feature pivotally in the closing section of Lanark). L&T’s catalogue entry also pointed to the inspiration Gray derived from famous and similarly-themed Old Masters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Triumph of Death’ and the apocalyptic landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch.

While Gray’s best known works are arguably the 40ft mural for the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station in Glasgow, as well as another large-scale painting Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties which was acquired for the city of Glasgow’s collection last year, this was first time this kind of monumental picture had appeared at auction.

The previous auction record for the artist was £13,00 for Snakes and Ladders (Film Sequence with Liz Lochhead) sold at L&T in 2021, but here expectations were greater.

The estimate was set at £25,000-35,000 and, after generating a decent bidding battle, it was knocked down at £34,000 to a private Scottish buyer, presumably one with plenty of wall space.

While the price set a new benchmark for Gray commercially, the sum contributed the lion’s share of the £47,320 raised from the nine works by Gray that got away.

While another of Gray’s artworks painted in 1972 to illustrate an edition of Lochhead's poetry went unsold against a £6000-8000 pitch, a number of good competitions came a bit further down the price scale.

Portrait of Aonghas MacNeacail by Alasdair Gray

Portrait of Aonghas MacNeacail by Alasdair Gray, £2200 at Lyon & Turnbull.

A portrait of the writer Aonghas MacNeacail from 1984 was estimated at £1500-2000 and sold at £2200 to a Scottish private buyer. The mixed media work was one of his numerous smaller sketches depicting his friends and their families in this case showing the distinctive looking poet who wrote in the Scottish Gaelic language. The two men were part of the same group of writers formed around Philip Hobsbaum at Glasgow University.

The price fetched was among the highest at auction for a work on paper in this smaller format.

Elsewhere a couple of lots related directly to Gray’s Lanark novel. One was a set of six lithographs which were produced as a limited edition run by the Glasgow Print Studio shortly after the book had first come out in 1981. The images appeared in later editions of Lanark as the cover, title page and prefix for each of the four sections of the book.

Part of a signed edition of 45, the set here was estimated at £3000-5000 and it sold at £3600 to a private Scottish buyer.

Book launch invitation by Alasdair Gray

Book launch invitation design for ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray, £1800 at Lyon & Turnbull.

Another Lanark lot was Gray’s original design for the invitation to the book launch in 1981. The 16.5in x 11.5in (42 x 29cm) pen, ink, tippex and collage invited the recipient to the lunchtime event organised by Canongate Publishers in Edinburgh.

Given its novelty, it was one of the more difficult lots to estimate and it eventually sold slightly below predictions at £1800 to a London based private buyer.