Autopictography: A Study in Gray

Glasgow polymath Alasdair Gray is starting to receive the celebration his work deserves with a new book spanning his career and two exhibitions in the capital. The Skinny popped round his gaff to learn more about his prolific life in art and writing

Feature by Adeline Amar | 02 Nov 2010

“I’ve always had a habit, when engaged in a job, to make it as ambitious as I could – which has often delayed things hugely. And this is another example of that.” I’m sitting in Alasdair Gray’s living room, in the West End of Glasgow, and he is pointing at the copy of A Life in Pictures I’m holding on my lap. Published in October, the book is a thick, gorgeous account of his life from early childhood to the present, with details of Gray’s paintings, writings and murals. As he explains, the discussion and writing phases of the book have been a long and at times bumpy ride: originally discussed with Canongate in the 1980s, the final contract was only signed in 2004 when Gray promised to deliver all the material for the book by the end of the following year – it has taken an extra five years to get to that stage, and the book itself has been remodelled several times before becoming Gray’s autobiography. Or, as he likes to call it, an 'autopictography'. “At one point it was going to be devoted purely to my pictures of Glasgow and its people, then other ideas came, like the notion of arranging the material chronologically. I suppose I also wanted to present aspects of all my visual work, including the illustrations to the books and book designs.”

It is no wonder the book has taken so many years to complete; Gray goes into great detail to explain how he first started to draw and write, with mentions of a youthful art class at Kelvingrove and his years at Glasgow School of Art, to pretty much any other thing you’ve always wanted to know about the author. And despite wishing a couple of edits, Gray himself is satisfied with the result: “My wife and other friends are discovering errors and wee bits that need corrections. I do feel that some of the prose in the later chapters has a rushed look, I could have said some things better if I’d spent a few more hours improving it.” He laughs, “That’ll be for the paperback edition. But, on the whole, I’m pretty pleased with it.”

Active since the 1970s, Gray has become quite an emblematic figure in Scotland. Trained as a painter and muralist at Glasgow School of Art, he is also an incredibly prolific writer – novelist, poet, playwright, pamphleteer – and taught creative writing at the University of Glasgow with friends Tom Leonard and James Kelman. His art famously adorns the walls of Ashton Lane’s Ubiquitous Chip and the Òran Mór, while his novels have a steady place on the literature curriculum of Scottish universities (back in my days as an English student, one could even end up studying him four times in one year). His debut, and possibly most famous novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books motivated Anthony Burgess to declare Gray the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott and compare the book to Joyce’s Ulysses. Interestingly, Lanark also epitomises the way Gray works: written over 25 years (Gray started it at 18), it is carefully illustrated by Gray himself (a habit he brings to all his books) and in the main takes place in a dystopian, pre-war Glasgow.

This pre-war section of the book is heavily autobiographical, with details of the main character’s childhood and time at Glasgow School of Art – descriptions which have not always been seen as positive. “This section does have accounts of my father, mother and sister, and friends that are very much as I remembered them. At the same time, that story was being written in order to end tragically; so in describing quite a lot of my early life, I angled it towards darkness. My sister, when she read it, was quite upset because she could see that the book was quite accurate in many ways, but her childhood she remembered as a rather happy one... And so was mine in many ways, but I was playing down the happiness in order to prepare for the final grimness.” Gray places a dramatic emphasis on the last word, referring to the main character’s eventual suicide. “She started writing down her own memories of the past. She felt if she didn’t, my fictional account would swamp hers.”

In A Life in Pictures Gray seems careful of people’s feelings, ensuring no description comes across as spiteful. Quite the opposite, the book is almost bittersweet, with various elegiac accounts of friends and relatives he’s lost through the years.

“My art is influenced by the people I’ve loved – or for that matter hated – or lost through death. In my books, mostly fictions, many of the characters are versions of people I’ve known.” Will some recognise themselves in your work? “Well, those who are still alive will. But they are friends and I’ve said nothing about them that’s untrue and nothing they wouldn’t want said.”

To what extent has Glasgow influenced his work, then? After all Gray was born and went on to spend most of his life in the city. Glasgow and his art seem so deeply intertwined – from the Necropolis’ description in Lanark to his various cityscapes –that one has almost become a symbol of the other and vice-versa. Would his art have turned out the same, had he been in any other city?

He seems almost offended by the question. “Of course! Had I grown up in any city in the world, with parents who encouraged my writing and painting and story telling, I’m sure it would have! My parents would never have called themselves artistic, but my mother was musical. They gave me pencils and crayons and paper – they obviously liked to see me using them. I wrote silly little rhymes and they liked me to recite them at parties. My father typed them out for me.” He pauses, gathers his thoughts and adds slowly. “I’m not hugely fond of local patriotism. I think people who go round praising their own nation or their own locality are generally a bit insecure about it. We should all take our own localities for granted as the place where we live, but at the same time we shouldn’t claim that it’s better than anywhere else. In some respects it may be, but if we really know where we live then we know it’s not really satisfactory. No place is ever good enough! There may be very conservative-minded individuals who think that where they live is good enough because they’re earning enough money, but democracy would be impossible if people were perfectly satisfied with what they have.” He shakes his head and quietly adds, “Sorry I shouldn’t go into that sort of stuff.”

In the 1960s and 70s Gray struggled with a lack of income and considered moving to London in the hope of seeing his career flourish. “Maybe I would have been a success, but maybe not. Here at least I had an aunt I could visit for meals when I was hungry,” he adds with a smile. “I had friends like Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard, Jim Kelman and Archie Hind. I thought, ‘These are good writers; they have tried London but they don’t see any point living anywhere else but here.’ I’m not satisfied or pleased with the condition of Glasgow, but there’s nothing rotten or wrong with it that isn’t evident anywhere else. Like any artist, all you can use is the material that your life has provided you with.”

Gray cites his parents’ picture books as his earliest inspiration. William Blake, to whom he’s often compared, but also Rudyard Kipling, Wyndham Lewis – all books illustrated by their own authors. He marvels over his discovery of a book of Thomas Hardy’s poems which he had illustrated himself, mentions Victor Hugo’s sketches and drawings and comments. “Most writers have a pictorial imagination. I don’t think myself at all unique. What I thought was 'well, if they can do it, so can I.' Too much teaching is explaining to children what they’ll never probably understand and therefore be unable to do. It’s very often a matter of systematic discouragement.” In a dramatic voice, quoting a line probably heard too often, he implores, "You’ll never make a living by being an artist!" He laughs but quickly becomes serious again: “And it is difficult!”

For years he relied on commissions for a living and gives examples of two he received in the 1960s to reproduce a Garden of Eden mural he had painted in Greenhead Church (now destroyed) – one of them by a neighbour aware that the Grays had just had a newborn son and were badly off at the time. He opens the book and points at a painting of Eve waking up next to Adam, then another one of the couple kneeling and embracing by a lake and notes that the latter has recently been acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. “I’m glad they have got that one. When I’ve got an image that I think shows something that satisfies me I keep using it again and again. The image of Adam and Eve embracing – I’ve kept reproducing it in different contexts. That seems to me my best representation of a loving couple. I don’t see why I need to go out of my way to invent a new image for that. I’ve also used it as an illustration in one or two books and so forth.” (It is one of the main illustrations in Lanark.)

Does he consider himself as a visual artist rather than a writer then, I ask, gesturing towards the sunny living room that is clearly used both as a studio and a library, with walls lined with books and pots filled with brushes. “I don’t see a need to describe myself. If you take the line that I am what I do, then I am what I have done. I’ve always had stories and words going through my head but also drawing, designing things, using my hands...” Gray is notorious for being relentlessly productive in both writing and drawing, which makes me wonder how he balances the two, or even just one activity without hitting a creative block. “Since I tended to write and to draw with the same kind of pen, I’ve generally found that when I’ve been working well at one thing that is writing, it’s been a great relief to take holidays from it by drawing or painting. But the periods in which I don’t feel imaginatively productive – periods of depression I suppose, which do keep happening...” He laughs, “‘Ah well Gray, you’re over 70 now, your imagination is running out, your mind will undoubtedly fail one day and it’s probably already started!’ But when things get going imaginatively again: my mind is generally working in both areas. Because one’s a holiday from the other.”

And he is not likely to stop any time soon, with two exhibitions of his visual work opening in Edinburgh this month to coincide with the publication of his book. The Talbot Rice Gallery is focusing on his graphic art while The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is planning a one-room display mainly concentrating on portraits. But at 75, the busy artist is not stopping there and has more projects in mind for the coming few years. One of them involves finishing large works (he mentions one of 12 x 7 feet) started in the early 1960s, for a retrospective at Kelvingrove Museum in 2014. For this he will need a larger, dedicated studio space than his current house – or his wife’s house, as he notes, who has kindly let him put up shelves to stack his books almost up to the ceiling. In the meantime, he has already started work on a tiled mural commissioned by the Glasgow Subway while still hoping to one day be able to complete his work in the Òran Mór auditorium. The latter is, however, more intricate to realise since it requires having scaffolding installed for two or three weeks in a row to enable Gray and his assistant to finish their work – weeks during which the venue would have to decline bookings, not currently a financially viable situation. Gray hints at a possible documentary film about his work that is currently in discussion. With the appropriate funding, the auditorium could be rented for the required amount, allowing Gray time to finish the work.

As the interview draws to a close I ask him if there is any young, contemporary artist whose work he has recently noticed – he has for instance been linked to Lucy McKenzie and Stuart Murray. “There are artists whose work I greatly like. But like too many elderly artists I tend to concentrate on my own work.” He chortles. “Of course I’m always on the look out for ideas I can pinch from other people, living or dead! There is work I’ve seen in reproductions and invitation cards and I thought, ‘Oh I like the look of that, a lot of skills there, I admire this bit and that bit,’ but it’s always struck me as a distraction from what I’m trying to do myself.” 

A Life In Pictures is out now, published by Canongate, £35