Last week the GSA Archives and Collections hosted an open afternoon where people could come into the archive to learn more about the George and Cordelia Oliver Archive and see some of the highlights of the collection. As part of this event Academic Liaison Librarian David Buri gave a short talk about the photographs of George Oliver and for those of you who could not make the open afternoon, below is a transcription of David’s talk and a small selection of photographs from the George and Cordelia Oliver Archive. Enjoy!
I came to Glasgow in the late 1980s when the city was beginning to emerge from its post-industrial decline, and for some reason I have an enduring fascination with the city that I just missed out on by 10 or 20 years, the Glasgow that I never really saw, the soot-blackened streetscapes and the many beautiful buildings that have been demolished, even the Brutalist 1960s and 1970s structures such as the College of Building and Printing or the Anderston Centre in their early years when they were new.
So for me, the George Oliver archive with its wonderfully atmospheric images provides the privilege of a look at Glasgow as it must have been while I was growing up in a very different environment on the south coast of England, and of course for many of you here looking at it is going to bring back a host of real memories.
So I’ve picked out a dozen or so images that particularly struck me as I was leafing through the folders here. I’m not a photographer, so I don’t know whether they’re technically or artistically the best, but they are perhaps representative of what is in the collection.
For example, there are many atmospheric photographs taken along the Broomielaw and further downstream along the Clyde; I believe photographers call these ‘mood images’ – this one shows the city’s already ominously deserted docks in the 1970s or 1980s, while others in the collection reflect the docks in busier and more prosperous times.
There are also superb photographs of individual buildings in and around the city centre which remind us just how much has been lost during the past few decades: there are for example, a number of images of St Enoch station and its magnificent St Pancras-style vaulted roof before its demolition in 1975. I love the rows of British-built cars in this photograph.
Cars, of course, were a passion of George Oliver’s, and he was an expert on vintage and veteran vehicles. Inevitably, many of his photographs feature cars either as a backdrop or in the foreground, such as this view looking up Blythswood Hill in the 1970s. Those of my age and older will have a lot of fun identifying the makes and models.
George Oliver’s photographs remind us that not only do Glaswegians have a long standing love affair with cars, but their love of shopping predates developments such as Princes Square and the Buchanan Galleries. There are some wonderful images of shopfronts and people shopping, some of which look like they are taken in towns and cities outside Glasgow; and there are many other images from around Glasgow’s city centre, usually photographed in a sharp and clear light enabling decorative details and ornamentation to be captured. I liked this shot from the Merchant City because at first glance I thought it was a palazzo-lined street in an Italian city until I saw the crow-stepped gables of the building in what must be Argyle Street.
But perhaps most striking of all are George Oliver’s photographs of the Gorbals and Townhead areas which he is recorded as ‘haunting’ during the 1960s and 1970s when the Victorian tenements were being demolished wholesale and replaced by high rise blocks such as Basil Spence’s Queen Elizabeth Square. As Cordelia Oliver says in her book ‘The seeing eye’,
“you recognise a relish in strong patterns made by sun and shadow, and even more, in the mysterious quality of filtered light in those canyons between the Gorbals tower blocks where leftover 19th century structures still seem both out of place and yet curiously romantic”.
I’m not sure what this building is, it’s not named on the back of the photograph and I don’t think it’s still standing, but there are some terrific opportunities for people to get involved and help to identify the locations.
Time and again, we see George Oliver capturing the emergence of the ‘new’ steel and concrete 1970s Glasgow, not just in the Gorbals, but in areas like Anderston, where Richard Seifert’s Anderston Centre looks absolutely magnificent; and of course there are quite a few images showing the new M8 motorway slicing brashly through the city.
Nor are Glasgow’s suburbs neglected; I know there are some of you here from Pollokshields, where George Oliver lived for many years near Maxwell Park. There are many photographs of this area for you to explore and enjoy.
And finally, as Cordelia records in her book, George was always fascinated by his fellow humans of all ages, and to me, his photographs of people are some of the most memorable in these folders. There are some superb pictures taken in the Barras, the Gorbals and elsewhere, which remind me of the work of David Peat and Oscar Marzaroli. Cordelia says that he seems to have worn some sort of ‘invisibility cloak‘ when photographing people, who all seem to be strangely oblivious to his presence amongst them.
So that’s my selection, and I hope that has whetted your appetite to explore the collection. And just as a final thought: what would George Oliver have been photographing in Glasgow now: the new Sikh Temple in Berkeley Street; the demolition of the tower blocks at Sighthill; Glaswegian children playing Pokemon Go on their phones perhaps?