Obituary: Ally Thompson

Surrealist painter, member of the 1980s New Glasgow Boys group of bold artists

Ally Thomson. Surrealist painter, member of the 1980s New Glasgow Boys group of bold artists. Picture: contributed
Ally Thomson. Surrealist painter, member of the 1980s New Glasgow Boys group of bold artists. Picture: contributed

Ally Thompson. Glasgow surrealist painter.

Born 3 April, 1955 in Glasgow.

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Died 31 January, 2016 in Glasgow. Aged 60.

Ally Thompson was a member of the New Glasgow Boys who, in the 1980s, contributed through their lively imaginative imagery to raising the international awareness of Scotland’s standing in the visual arts. The New Glasgow Boys were a generation of artists whose bold approach to painting was vibrant and thrilling. They had all studied at The Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s and much of their work – Thompson’s in particular – was inspired by their working class background. Thompson’s early work was heroic and had a machismo quality – qualities he was to develop and preserve throughout his career.

Other members along with Thompson included Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski, James Guthrie and the late Steven Campbell. They all made a significant impact on the Glasgow cultural scene and, indeed, it is suggested that the success of the group was an important factor in the city’s cultural renaissance of recent decades.

Alasdair Neil Renwick Thompson (always Ally) attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1975-80 and he qualified with a BA with First Class Honours. In 1979 he was awarded a post graduate scholarship and a Travelling Scholarship from the Scottish Education Department. Initially he then worked as a tutor of drawing at the Glasgow School of Art and then held various teaching appointments in the city.

While still a student Thompson exhibited at student shows, notably at the Royal Scottish Academy and in 1982 his work was selected by John Bellany in a new exhibition titled Scottish Art Now. In 1984 he and Howson held a joint exhibition at the Glasgow School of Art Museum and Thompson’s work was also seen that year in the Scottish Society of Artists in Edinburgh.

His first major collector was the Lanarkshire businessman Alec Mather who visited his studio while Thompson was teaching at a local secondary school. Mather immediately bought one of his paintings for twice the asking price on condition he retired from teaching to concentrate on painting. Mather was a perceptive buyer with a canny eye. He not only bought Thompson’s paintings but also those of Howson and Steven Campbell.

Thompson’s first major one-man show was at the Barbizon Gallery in Glasgow in 1989 and that was greeted with such acclaim that Thompson was given one man shows in New York and Paris. His connections in France prospered – he lived for some years in Provence in the 1990s – and exhibited regularly. His renown in Paris was further recognised when he was commissioned to paint a mural at the Finzi (a former melting factory) on the Avenue Georges V.

His inventive and often striking paintings gathered a wide following and after prestigious exhibitions in Marseilles and Glasgow in 1997 his works were seen at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh and at the Glasgow Art Fair. In 2011 the Braewell Gallery in Edinburgh held an extensive one-man show.

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Thompson’s pictures were also bought by many important collectors. These included the Picasso Collection, La Fondation de France and the CBS Collection in New York. Private collectors included Mme Danielle Mitterand, Bono, Sir Bob Geldorf and Petula Clark.

Thompson was a quiet, shy and retiring man who preferred to maintain his own company. His output was prolific, all of which he documented scrupulously in his copper-plate handwriting. He varied from fine drawings and paintings to fascinating collages. But it was those bold, colourful and exuberant stocky figures, often wearing horn-rimmed spectacles, that brought him much fame both in Scotland and internationally. There is a joy about those portraits – such pictures as The City Slicker and Manhattan Night – which is robust, daring and vital.

Thompson was an important surrealist – he was dubbed the Glaswegian Surrealist by the press for his first one-man show in New York - but he also captured in many of his canvases an air of mystery and drive: for example, Road to Eternity that opened up a different and riveting side of his talent. There is in his landscapes a poetic energy that matches his imagery and his love of restless colours.

Thompson was a man with a generous spirit. In 2012 he donated his painting Walkers in the Boundless Night, a typically dynamic work with swirling angular shapes, to be auctioned for charity at a dinner in aid of Yorkhill Children’s Foundation.

Thompson had, from his youth, a difficult relationship with his father. But the relationship improved over the years and Thompson was greatly saddened by his father’s death in 2009.

Ally Thompson is survived by his mother and his three brothers.