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Alasdair Gray’s calamity: Mural by artistic genius lost as pub becomes flats

Falls of Clyde (The Riverside Bar and Restaurant, formerly Kirkfieldbank Tavern, restored by the artist 2009), 1969
Courtesy The Alasdair Gray Archive, photo by Ruth Clark
Falls of Clyde (The Riverside Bar and Restaurant, formerly Kirkfieldbank Tavern, restored by the artist 2009), 1969 Courtesy The Alasdair Gray Archive, photo by Ruth Clark

The loss of a spectacular and irreplaceable mural by one of Scotland’s most celebrated artists as developers turn a pub into flats has prompted calls for greater protection for public works of art.

Falls of Clyde was painted by Alasdair Gray in 1969 on an internal wall of a pub in Kirkfieldbank, Lanarkshire, but has been removed, presumed destroyed, during work on the building.

The huge picture, described by experts as a significant work in the history of Scottish art, depicted the picturesque waterfalls in the Clyde gorge and the mill at New Lanark, now a World Heritage Centre.

The acrylic and oil painting, which was 4ft wide and 25ft long, has now been lost after building work went ahead in the village before planning officials’ were told.

The former pub, which housed the mural, is being developed into flats by Lanark-based developers VG Homes. Work to remove the wall featuring the artist’s mural had been undertaken before local authority officers could halt it.

Now Gray’s archivist and a village heritage group are among those calling for the protection of significant public artworks to prevent the loss of more.

Writer and artist Gray restored the mural over ten days in 2009, a decade before his death aged 85, after new owners of the Riverside Bar discovered it under wallpaper and paint in 2006.

Professor Mark Stephens, a member of Save Our Landscapes, a community group set up to protect and promote the New Lanark World Heritage Site, lamented the destruction of Gray’s work which he described as “an evocative picture that captures relationships” between the old town of Lanark, the village of New Lanark, the falls of Clyde and the wider landscape.

He said: “This is a considerable loss to Scotland’s heritage and not something that should have happened, when you think about the array of protections that the area enjoys.

“It’s a loss of an artwork from a very important figure in literature and art, and also a loss to the locality, and a part of the heritage that is recognised through New Lanark and the Falls of Clyde.

“It seems to me there ought to have been a designation on it. There are a lot of murals around, and designation is something the Scottish Government should consider.”

Falls of Clyde depicted many natural and man-made focal points in the area, with its full panorama including Tinto Hill, Bonnington Estate and the picturesque Cora Linn waterfall. It also featured New Lanark Village.

The pub went onto the market in January 2020, with the listing for the leasehold including details about the nationally significant mural painted by one of the country’s most celebrated artists.

It stated: “Art lovers visit the bar to view the ‘Falls Of The Clyde Mural’, a 25ft by 4ft high artwork created by well-known artist Alasdair Gray in 1969 – the eye catching mural decorates the main wall in the bar area.”

Artist and writer Alasdair Gray celebrated with special edition of final work

Sorcha Dallas, custodian of the Alasdair Gray archive, said: “This situation raises issues of concern about other similar works at risk in those environments, how we think about protecting them in the longer term, and if there’s work that needs to be done so that when something like this happens in the future, we’re able to protect the artwork. Not just for Alasdair, but other artists whose work is publicly-sited, too.

“There are lots of flats in the west end of Glasgow where if you peeled back the wallpaper there would be part of an Alasdair Gray mural there.”

Glasgow features several prominent works by Gray, including an intricate map of the west end in the city’s Hillhead subway station, and a mural in the Ubiquitous Chip and Oran Mor.

Dallas said: “He has reshaped how we imagine Glasgow and has left a legacy in terms of the public works that are there.”

She added: “The owner of the Kirkfieldbank restaurant at the time had obviously valued the fact that there was an existing artwork.

“He brought Alasdair in to reinstate it, which was brilliant.”

But she added: “Alasdair understood the temporary nature of murals that they can be damaged or painted over, especially if they’re in the private sphere. So that was something Alasdair was accepting of throughout the works he made in the public domain. But there’s work needing to be done in terms of the existing legislation.”

Johnny Rodger, professor of urban literature at Glasgow School of Art, said the loss of the mural was “really saddening.”

He said: “The loss of the Kirkfieldbank mural as an example of Gray’s early mature experimentation in use of multi-perspective is a significant loss to Scottish art.

“Gray’s original contribution in both art and literature really consists in his being able to bring whole images of living places which both reflect human presence and effect on them, plus at the same time expose their underpinning of our very existence.

“So, in the New Lanark case we see the forces of nature (the waterfalls, the trees, the hills), and the human settlement and exploitation (the hydropower, the cotton mills) of these forces.

“We see the top of the valley on a plane with the bottom of the valley and can understand the whole as charged not just with forces of nature, but of human culture and socio-political history too.

“The whole mural is charged with great social movements – the Romantics, early socialism with Robert Owen, the Covenanters, William Wallace.

“Arguably with its spatial sweep and embodiment of history in a complex perspectival system this work by Gray is much more important than the better known public works in Glasgow.”

Members of the public can ask for buildings to be listed by Historic Environment Scotland, who decide on a building’s suitability.

South Lanarkshire Council said: “Planning permission for the change of use of the building and internal alterations to create four flats was approved in January.

“As this was not a listed building the mural had no statutory or legal protection and could not be taken into account when the application was assessed.

“The removal of internal features which have no statutory protection does not require planning consent.”

Developers VG Homes did not respond to requests for comment.