The Govan Stones of Govan Old Parish Church


The ‘Govan Stones’ form one of the largest collections of early medieval, monumental sculpture in Scotland, and are found in Govan Old Parish Church. The collection originally comprised 47 sculptures, art historically dated to between 900 and 1100 AD. Since the nineteenth century however, 16 have been lost – they are thought to have been destroyed in the 20thcentury during the redevelopment of shipyards. Of the remaining 31, there are 4 monumental crosses; 26 grave markers (including 5, distinctive ‘Hog-back’ stones) and 1 unique, monolithic ‘sarcophagus’.

The Hogbacks are the oldest of the surviving sculpture, one dating to around AD 900. The shape and decoration of these indicates an affinity with Norse settlements in Britain such as Cumbria, where similar sculpture has been identified. There is debate as to where the Scandinavian influence could have originated. It could have come from the Viking sack of Strathclyde stronghold, Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870. Indeed, some believe that Govan may have been subjected to Norse rule following this; and that people of Norse descent populated the parish thereafter. The Hog-backs were carved to resemble roof tiles or an upturned boat. The stone upturned boat is symbolic of the wooden boats upon which the dead were cremated at sea in Scandinavian culture; and the style of ring-knot employed on the stonework links Govan to carving schools in Galloway and Cumbria. Thus, while the Hog-back sculptures were made of local stone, their decorative style enables us to deduce that they were commissioned by an individual with Norse taste.

While the monuments are all Christian, the crosses and the sarcophagus exhibit powerful secular imagery. The sarcophagus is decorated with images of mounted horsemen and stag hunting, which suggest a secular patron; and interlace on each end panel are indicative of Pictish, Irish and Anglian influences. The fact that the sarcophagus is decorated on all sides could imply that it was intended for public display rather than burial – suggesting that it was a reliquary rather than a tomb.

A plinth designed by Rowand Anderson in 1908 claims that the sarcophagus belonged to St Constantine, who flourished in the 6thcentury in South Western Britain. So whether this sculpture was a tomb or a reliquary, its scale and ornate decoration suggests that the site of Govan Old Parish Church was an important ecclesiastical centre. This idea is reinforced by the presence of multiple free standing crosses – Govan is the only site in the Kingdom of Strathclyde to have more than one.

The Govan Stones establish a tangible link between Govan and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The decoration on the stones indicates that they were secular and therefore not all the grave-markers of clerics. This is significant as it reinforces the argument which says that Govan was the ecclesiastical centre for the Kings of Strathclyde. The volume of important burials also shows that the church was flourishing in Govan in the 11thcentury under the gaze of the royal estate across the Clyde at Partick.

The monuments are made of local stone, indicating a strong school of carving at Govan. The size of the collection and the prestige of those buried beneath the monuments indicates that the church at Govan was the pre-eminent religious site in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and so we can infer that it enjoyed royal patronage.

Below left to right: photograph showing the imagery of the Govan Sarcophagus; the Hog-back sculptures inside Govan Old Parish Church; late nineteenth century drawing of the Govan Sarcophagus in its previous location in the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church.

Art and Sculpture at the 1938 Empire Exhibition


One of the lasting memories of the 1938 Empire Exhibition for many people is the abundance of art and sculpture placed around the park and inside the many Palaces and Pavilions. While it has proved more than a little challenging to identify a lot of the sculpture, I have come across a book in the House for an Art Lover archives that has helped to shed some light on the matter. The book in question is The Illustrated Souvenir of the Palace of Arts, printed and published by McCorquodale and Co., LTD., in 1938. As the name suggests, the remit of this book is largely limited to the collection housed in the Palace of Art, with one or two sculptural exceptions – such as the bronze Foam, by C. D’O. Pilkington Jackson, seen below as a catalogue image. Such is my fascination and admiration for the art and sculpture of the 1938 Empire Exhibition that this week’s article will focus on some of its most notable pieces.

Sculpture has been used for millennia to represent aspects of life, religion and mythology as deemed appropriate by the ruling classes. Sculpture was the primary form of public, artistic expression for the Ancient Greeks and Romans – whose sculptors have become synonymous with creating the ideal image of the human figure. Indeed, the Greek belief that “man is the measure of all things” is nowhere more clearly shown than in Greek sculpture. This influence is seen clearly in the sculptural offerings at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, where all manner of human emotions, attitudes and relationships are reflected. One sculpture comes to mind when thinking of the overt Classical influence on the sculpture at the 1938 Exhibition. In the Fitness Hall of the UK Pavilion a man is depicted in the process of throwing an object – possibly a discus (a typical Greek and Roman sport). The sculpture (below) implies that the man is taking part in a competition, and his immortalisation in stone implies his success, heroism and importance. While in Roman tradition a sculpture of this type may be dedicated to an individual in recognition of their importance and status in the community; there is no evidence from the photograph that the piece in the Fitness Hall was dedicated to one man in the same way. This could imply to the viewer that the sculpture is in recognition of the sporting excellence of the nation as a whole, an ‘everyman’. Alternatively it could be a representation of the ideal British form, and therefore something to aspire to. Indeed, many sculptural works at the Exhibition hint at the impressive physical form of British citizens, whether this is manifested in fitness, health or beauty (notable examples are: The Runner by Leon Underwood; The Goddess by E. Whitney-Smith).

Another Classical value, the importance of family, constituted a significant theme among the mythology and art of the Greek and Roman empires – and is one that seems to have been adopted in the public art on show in 1938. The UK Pavilion hosted a large sculpture showing a man, woman and child in peak physical condition standing on top of the universe, surrounded by clouds (below). They are depicted standing firmly, as conquerors. This imagery of British fortitude and strength in the UK Pavilion has strong political connotations at a time when Europe and the Empire was beginning to feel significant pressure from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. By 1936, rearmament was well underway in Germany; and by 1938 Hitler was looming over the Czech border, having already absorbed Austria. The sculpture in the UK Pavilion imagines the British people, and the British concept of family, as the most powerful in the universe, and sends a strong message to visitors of the Exhibition to that effect.

Less political, or perhaps more Classical examples of family were also represented artistically at the Exhibition. Mother and Child by William McMillan which was housed in the Palace of Art bares distinct similarities to an Italian cast gilt bronze plaquette, dating to around 1486. According to historians at the British Museum, where the plaquette is housed, the work could take after the renowned Italian sculptor, Donatello (1386-1466). The plaquette (shown below) depicts Virgin and Child in an embrace echoed by the stone work produced by McMillan. The nod to the work of this Renaissance sculptor, which in turn references the Classical artists before him, could be said to be an expression of admiration for previously successful and dominant Empires.

While it would be going too far to suggest that the collection of sculpture and art at the Empire Exhibition of 1938 was intended solely as a political statement, or indeed a statement of Empire and power; it is perhaps fair to propose that the sculpture on show throughout the park displayed an awareness of, and an admiration for previously dominant cultures. Both the Greek and Roman Empires used art and sculpture as a means of communicating their views, victories and values to the world; and perhaps an element of that was adopted in the selection of public art in 1938. By emulating the culture of the Greek and Roman Empires, Britain was consciously drawing a comparison between the dominant nations of the past and herself - a statement with connotations of knowledge, an advanced political system, and cultural dominance.

Below left to right:Foam by C. D'O. Pilkington Jackson; Unknown sculpture in the UK Pavilion (Fitness Hall); Discus-thrower Roman copy of a bronze original from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, Italy (5th Century); The Runner by Leon Underwood;The Goddess by E. Whitney Smith; Unknown sculpture from the UK Pavilion showing family; Mother and Child by William McMillan; and a cast gilt bronze plaquette, part of the British Museum collection.

The Architecture of the Empire Exhibition 1938


The clean, modernist architecture of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 (EE38) was awe-inspiring. It was designed to be constructed quickly and easily, and to be taken apart just as fast. This article seeks to explore some aspects of the design and construction of the numerous pavilions which enabled the EE38 to move from inception, to completion, to destruction so quickly. Plans for the exhibition were being formulated in late 1936, architects were employed by 1937, and Scotland’s largest ever exhibition was opened by the King in May 1938. There were over 80 Palaces and Pavilions, representing all the colonies of Empire: palaces of engineering and industry showcasing the might of British manufacturing; as well as restaurants and tea rooms; concert halls, kiosks and fairground rides. The EE38 covered around 175 acres, and in the words of architectural historian, Neil Baxter, created “the nearest thing to a townscape of modern buildings in the inter-war period.” It was a feat of engineering and ambition of epic proportions – and in many respects, a feat that has not been equalled since.

Paisley born and Glasgow educated architect, Thomas S. Tait was the Organising Committee’s unanimous choice for the role of Architect-in-Chief. His public profile had been boosted in the years preceding the exhibition, having just completed the prestigious government commission for St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh; as well as having had a hand in the design of Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early 1930s; and Selfridges London in the early 20thcentury. By the 1930s, Tait had worked under John Burnet for many years in London firm Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne.

As Architect-in-Chief, Tait was required to plan the elaborate layout, to organise the design in a uniform manner, and to oversee the construction of all Palaces and Pavilions. The scale of the scheme necessitated the appointment of a team of talented architectural assistants, all of whom were selected from the ‘younger school’ of Scottish architects. Basil Spence, Jack Coia, Thomas Marwick, Margaret Brodie, A. D. Bryce, A. Esme Gordon, Launcelot Ross, Gordon Tait, and James Taylor Thomson were chosen for these roles. Each of these assistants was responsible for the production of one or more buildings, to be designed within the boundaries set by Tait. Indeed, one of the challenges faced by Tait was designing the buildings and layout to give the appearance of a homogenous whole. The extraordinary demands imposed by the Organising Committee forced Tait to break from his usually conservative methods. By adopting a system of design based on standard components, Tait ensured that the buildings, designed by different architects, would blend in modernity and scale. He stipulated that all buildings were to be constructed on either steel or timber frames; and that asbestos-cement sheeting was to be used on all buildings, as it was light, weather resistant, and easily painted. The standard cladding sheets had the added benefit of dictating the proportions of each structure.

“The internal frames, windows and entrance openings were all calculated as sub-divisions or multiples of the ‘unit’, similarly the rectangular unit became the basis for a grid, dictating both elevation and plan of each building” (Neil Baxter, 1984)

Thus, by adhering to Tait’s insistence on the use of modern materials and methods of construction, and by obeying his demand for standard components, his assistants were limited to a range of essentially modern variations which in turn produced a uniform look to the design and layout of the EE38. For the first time, there was a divergence from the standard architectural free-for-all synonymous with prior International Exhibitions, caused by every structure being designed by a different architect – instead, the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston became known for unity, space, light and modernity.

The ground plan for the EE38 was presented to the Organising Committee in early 1937, detailing an arrangement of buildings around 3 main axes. However, Tait realised the potential of the natural topography of Bellahouston Park in creating an iconic structure; and in February 1937, he presented sketches for an impressive observation tower to be built on the summit of the hill. The height of the tower was enhanced by the hill it sat on, and gave it iconic status as the centre point of the exhibition. Indeed, Tait kept building on the sides of the hill to a minimum to emphasise the significance of the tower. This location added to the import of the Tower, as it provided views all over Glasgow from the Campsie Fells in the North to the shipyards in the South.  However, its position in a densely wooded area on top of the hill led to a mandate from the Parks Department that mature trees could not be removed. Thus, the restaurant at the Tower base became the Treetops restaurant, and living trees inside the room became a quirky design feature.

And so, Tait’s Tower was in many ways, the focal point of the 1938 Empire Exhibition. At around 300 feet it was the tallest enclosed structure ever built in Britain, and the 3,500 tons of concrete used as its foundation block are still inside Bellahouston Hill today. The tower showcased the spectrum of experiences acquired by Tait throughout his career. The stepping of oblong masses display his previous foray into the style of Dutch master, W. M. Dudok. The observation decks were reminiscent of a technique that Tait would have seen during his visit to the 1925 Exhibition in Paris, where it appeared in the clock tower of Rob Mallet-Steven’s tourism pavilion. Today, if you climb the steps towards the memorial stone unveiled by King George VI in 1937, and continue a little further up the hill, you will come to the site of Tait’s Tower – a fabulous clue to what once was; a pre-war feat of engineering, unrivalled in ambition and scale even today.

Below are images showing the position of Tait's Tower at the peak of Bellahouston Hill, overlooking the Empire Exhibition - the Atlantic Restaurant you can see in the first photo is facing towards the main cluster of Exhibition buildings at the bottom of the hill; and an image showing the Treetops Restaurant at the base of the Tower. All images are from the Lawson Collection in our photographic archives.