George Wyllie, 1921–2012: mischief and meaning

'The Lord Aberdour' by George Wyllie
The Lord Aberdour, by George Wyllie (1921–2012)
'The Lord Aberdour' by George Wyllie
The Lord Aberdour, by George Wyllie (1921–2012)

By John Knox

We breed them just occasionally – people with an extra life force. They make us proud to be human. Such a man was George Wyllie, the Scottish sculpture who has died at the age of 90.

I have one of Wyllie’s signed prints on the wall of my flat, a rough drawing of a River Forth paddle steamer, The Lord Aberdour. On a summer’s day in 2004, beside the pier in Aberdour, he was signing the prints after unveiling one of his typically provocative sculptures – a pine log set up on stilts and shaped like a boat, topped with a black funnel and pennants flying from the masts. He called it The Log of the Lord Aberdour, meaning, I suppose: “This is all we have left of our great maritime heritage.”

I still remember his speech to the crowd. It went something like this, delivered in his high excited Glasgow voice, beneath his navy cap with his white bushy hair spilling out on either side. “We have turned our backs on our rivers. We no longer use them. They have become places of dereliction, danger, embarrassment. But they were once the arteries of the cities, teaming with life, a source of wealth and imagination.” He followed the arty language with a practical suggestion. Every council should build a floating pontoon in its biggest river and bring the riverbanks to life.

George Wyllie was a highly practical man. I once visited him in his house/workshop overlooking his beloved Firth of Clyde at Gourock. As I remember it, the garden was full of old cartwheels, pieces of metal and wood, windmills of various kinds, strange and humorous devices, stones suspended on strings. Inside, there was paper everywhere, an easel, large tables with wood and metal laid out for cutting, in the corner was a double bass. His wife Daphne had died a few years before and he admitted that “the place has gone to wreck and ruin”. But he made me a cup of tea in the kitchen and told me to sit down, if I could find an empty seat.

I was there to record a radio interview for the BBC. George was standing as a candidate for the Senior Citizens Unity Party in the 2007 parliamentary elections for Holyrood. His politics were left-wing. His famous straw locomotive which hung from the Finnieston crane and his 80ft paper boat both cry out against the de-industrialisation of Scotland under Mrs Thatcher’s governments. But they have a mocking, humorous side too, like his running clock outside Buchanan bus station.

Wyllie was “a man of independent mind”, as Burns would have put it. Indeed, like Burns, he rose from humble beginnings, was largely self-educated and was a customs and excise officer. He only began his full-time artistic career when he retired at the age of 58.

Being an outsider, he was not accepted by the artistic establishment. To its shame, the National Gallery has never shown his work. Ironically, it is only recently that the government’s arts agency Creative Scotland has woken up to Wyllie’s genius and a 90th birthday exhibition is being held later this year.

George Wyllie would have found that most amusing, and oh so Scottish.

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