In the 4th of May 1987, a 78-feet straw locomotive was driven on a low-loader, diesel hauler from the former Springburn Locomotive works in Glasgow, the way locomotives had been since the 1940s, and hung from the 174-feet high Finnieston Crane over the Clyde where it swayed in the air for weeks.
On 22nd June it was taken back to Springburn and burned in a Viking-style ceremony. After the flames died down, the silhouette of a giant question mark was left in its burnt-out structure of steel and chicken wire.
‘Straw Locomotive’ was one of a number of powerful and playful works by George Wyllie. ‘Paper Boat’, built two years later, developed the same idea. It looked like a delicate paper boat, the kind a child would float on a pond, but was 80 feet long and sailed on the Thames and on to the World Trade Center in New York Harbour, a voyage that made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. ‘Paper Boat’ delivered a message about the end of the days of big shipbuilding to the heart of modern capitalism. Its cargo was quotations taken from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment, in which Smith suggests what holds us together is not self-interest, but an innate sympathy.
Though never properly recognized by the national art collections, George Wyllie had an enduring influence on art and was popular far beyond the art world; many locals are said to have wept as ‘Straw Locomotive’ was buffeted by the wind over the river which had once bustled with ships that exported 18,000 locomotives every year to forty-three destinations worldwide. And yet, in this beautifully designed book, Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie, written by his elder daughter Louise and Herald art critic Jan Patience, it is not until chapter five of seven – three-quarters of the way through – that the authors introduce their subject’s creative career.
This is because one of the remarkable things about Wyllie was that it was only after the age of 60, when he retired, that he decided it was ‘time for art’. Equally surprising, given his achievements, was that he was untrained. Not only did he not go to art college, he left school with no Highers and without any recognition of his potential as an artist; one school report shows that he only gained fifty-eight out of one hundred in his last set of marks for art at Bellahouston Academy, in contrast to the sixty-nine out of one hundred he achieved in history.
When Wyllie dedicated himself to art in later life, the question mark became his trademark. He described his own art as ‘scul?ture’. The question mark, he believed, should be at the centre of everything. The question Louise Wyllie and Jan Patience pursue is what made Wyllie – where did he come from? It’s a common conceit to look upon the past as unenlightened and less cultured than the present. It’s easy to flatter ourselves that today the arts world is more vibrant and inclusive than it has ever been. Politicians fall over themselves to boast about ‘Creative Britain’ or ‘Creative Scotland’ and trumpet platitudes about public art. In fact, as the authors illustrate, in the life of George Wyllie, culture was a living vibrant thing in which many participated and his earlier life can be found in the art he created years later.
George Ralston Wyllie was born on Hogmanay 1921 in Shettleston, Glasgow, to Harriet ‘Harry’ and Andy Wyllie. The family then moved to the Craigton, where George later described himself as ‘disadvantaged by a happy childhood’. Summer holidays were spend ‘doon the watter’ on the Clyde, aboard paddle steamers, and sailing toy yachts on the ponds in local parks. Drawing on papers and pictures found at the family home in Gourock, Arrivals and Sailings includes commentary from the diary he kept as a boy and during his time in the Navy. It is illustrated throughout with previously unseen photographs. One, gloriously ebullient, shows his grandparents, Joseph and Ellen Mills, snuggled close, surrounded by balloons, heads thrown back in laugher.
Wyllie left school on the cusp of sixteen for his first job as an office junior, at the ship owner and stevedore company, James Spencer & Company, a short walk from the River Clyde. He would have passed the Finnieston Crane every working day. He played the ukulele, wrote songs, becoming a key player in the Glasgow Gang Show, and was often building things: one ongoing project was to build a life-sized sailing boat in the back of the garden. He was also a member of the local model aeroplane club.
He continued to circle the Finnieston Crane when he was offered a job in at the civil engineering firm, Sir William Arroll & Company, makers of crane and bridge-building equipment. But he turned the opportunity down when his father told him not to take it as it was an ‘airy job’ that would leave him vulnerable come an economic slump. As Scotland’s manufacturing sector declined in later decades, so did the use of the crane. It was last operational in 1988.
Wyllie wanted to be an engineer and trained in the post office before joining the Royal Navy at the beginning of the Second World War. He had a new passion by this stage – the double bass. When in training, he gigged in the dance halls. ‘Have double bass will travel’ was his motto. Serving in the Pacific, he visited Hiroshima soon after its devastation. Decades later, in 1995, he created in Glasgow’s George Square an installation called ‘The Difference’ to mark the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day – a harrowing piece of charcoal-like stumps of tree trunks placed on a criss-cross grid-like system.
After the war, he returned to his job in the GPO’s engineering power station, working on electric light, motor and power installations. By then he was married to Daphne and they moved to the southwestern suburbs of Glasgow. The couple referred to their abode as ‘Home Sweat Home’, characteristic of Wyllie’s teasing nature. Family life took over. Life was good – before Daphne died in 2004, George made a sculpture dedicated to her, a portable spire in a box called ‘The Happy Compass’. He was always making something or performing. He drew, sketched and embarked on a small collection of landscape paintings, criticized by a friend as ‘like a striped red jersey.’ They were found at the bottom of the garden soon after, hurled outside in a fit of rage. He decided sculpture was his thing.
Wyllie entered the art scene at a time when dynamic and sympathetic figures, such as Richard Demarco, helped him to show his work. The two men became friends and sparring partners. A significant turning point was attending Demarco’s palindromic Strategy: ‘Get Arts’ exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art for the Edinburgh Festival in 1970 in which the German artist Joseph Beuys participated. From here Wyllie went on in the following decade to make artworks that attracted a large audience. He continued to play gigs, including with the Glasgow School of Art Jazz Band, joking that it was the closest he ever got to art school.
In the 1980s his solo exhibition ‘A Way with the Birds’, travelled to London’s Serpentine Gallery. One of its hits was an ‘All British Slap and Tickle Machine’, a strange contraption with a recycled bicycle seat for people to sit on, operating floppy leather hands and a tickling finger. He explained that it was designed to halt the loss of ‘a sense of joy in making things’ during the Thatcher years. In 1996, Liz Lochhead wrote a poem in his honour, ‘A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie’, which illuminates Wyllie’s work and life by asking a series of questions which get to the heart of the tensions in his work, which hovered between the serious and the playful, and the hard message and soft materials:
Who is the man whose name belies his nature? (for ‘wily’ he is not; there is craft in it, and art, but no guile. He is true and straight, his strategy is honesty, and to ask in all innocence in all experience the simplest, starkest, startling questions.)
Who makes biting satire out of mild steel?
This is not a conventional art book. There is no serious discussion of Wyllie’s artistic achievements nor does it significantly engage with the struggle he had as an outsider in the art world. Neither is it the kind of biography which reveals salacious details about a great man. It is an homage to a father and artist who touched people’s lives. With that come limitations; there is little analysis of Wyllie’s work and although the authors draw on archival material and their own experience it is told in a pedestrian, straightforward account. There is also no index, which is frustrating. Nonetheless, Arrivals and Sailings is a fitting tribute to an artist who, when he died in 2012, was celebrated by the dangling of a question mark off Finnieston Crane, a creative nod to his work and a joyful celebration of public art.