The beauty and the curse of being a tourist is that you know no one. This quality can make you mysterious, it can give you an incentive to talk to strangers, and it can also result in you not knowing where the good things are.
Recently I visited a gallery where each person found themselves introducing themselves simply because it is small, familiar and intriguing enough that knowing the name of the each person alongside whom you peruse the artwork makes perfectly good sense. The Hidden Lane Gallery, it should first and foremost be mentioned, is not on the Hidden Lane. The fact that its name suggests this is really a good thing, because otherwise you might find yourself dismissing this little opening off Argyle Street without taking a look around. It is a surprising contrast to the bustle of the main road and the brightly painted buildings are cheerful even (especially?) in the rain which happened to be tipping down on the day that we set out to visit.
The main venues spotted include a tea room, a yoga studio, a few art studios and a jewellery shop and I’ve since been told that there is a recording studio there too frequented by famous faces including Belle and Sebastian, so if that isn’t reason enough to visit regularly, I don’t know what is.
However, the gallery in question is located on Argyle Street, so we leave the wee lane and continue our search, which doesn’t lead us too much further.
Margaret Watkins was kind of a big deal. Born in Canada at the end of the 19th century, her photographs were iconic to the residents of 1920’s New York, from gracing the pages of Vogue to causing general artistic outrage of Tracey Emin standards. One photograph of dishes in a sink was considered shocking to a society who preferred to ignore that things might ever get dirty in the first place, thank you very much. She is still celebrated in Canada to this day. After a public scandal which, through no fault of her own, left her name as dirtied as the dishes she turned to art, she left US to join her last remaining family in Glasgow and settled down to a life of photographic obscurity. Few people here have ever heard of her. I certainly hadn’t. Upon her death, she left a box of thousands of photographs to her friend and neighbour, which must have come as a surprise given that she had never mentioned her photography fame before, or even having ever taken photographs for that matter. He has spent years clearing her name and ensuring her artwork is appreciated by future generations of Glaswegians through regular exhibitions of her work at the gallery. The legacy is astounding, from photographs of places one can still recognise, to lost parts of Glasgow, and a rather misleading photo which appears to show a hugely famous local landmark in the mist but the more you look, the more it morphs into something else entirely.
The photographs are, of course, the main attraction, but the gallery space in itself is pretty delightful. Downstairs there are mirrors, hidden places to sit, all sorts of tricks to make the most of the space and the light as well as a sunken seating area that would be perfectly suited to a large scale scrabble tournament (I plan on leaving a note in the guide book about this, fellow scrabble fans. I think I’m onto something).
The story of Margaret Watkins is an enigmatic one, with many what-ifs. Did she regret giving up her status as a respected photographer? Did she have any idea that her photographs would continue to be displayed in galleries around the world long after her death? Will she become a household name in the country in which she chose to spend the majority of her days, which she chose to carefully document and explore? What’s in a name? The loss of her credibility was enough to push Margaret to seemingly abandon her name and her life’s work. A box of her photographs was enough to drive her neighbour to devote his time to clearing that name. And in this gallery of her photographs, a group of strangers introduce themselves simply because it is small, familiar and intriguing enough that knowing the name of the each person alongside whom you peruse the artwork makes perfectly good sense.
As far as those questions are concerned, if you too are intrigued then you’d better get down to the gallery before the exhibition ends on Tuesday April 14th. You’ll probably find yourself with even more questions as a result. Just don’t forget to introduce yourself. The people who have stumbled upon the same mysterious photographs as you probably know where other good things in Glasgow are, too. This very evening I’m off to investigate one of the tip off’s I got whilst at the gallery, so watch this space and stay curious!