Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Peter Thomson, Baker, and the 'Curling: made in Scotland' Exhibition

The curling history exhibition, 'Curling: made in Scotland', opened today (February 20, 2019) at Hampden Park, Glasgow. The Scottish Football Museum has an additional space for temporary exhibitions, and the curling exhibition will be held here until June 16.

The exhibition relies heavily on the David B Smith bequest to the Scottish Curling Trust. David died in 2015 and his huge collection of curling memorabilia has been in store in Stirling since then. David's brother, daughter and son, and their partners, were present for the opening. Also on display are treasures acquired by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club over the years, and also more recent acquisitions by the Scottish Curling Trust.

Do visit if you possibly can. Curling's history is very special. Scottish Curling's CEO, Bruce Crawford, challenged us all to pick our 'favourite' item on show. I knew what mine would be! It's this painting:

The exhibition has been almost a year in the planning. For me, one of the highlights has been the discovery of an oil painting which David had in his collection. That's it above. David's notes about this had been lost, and the Scottish Curling Trust's John Burnett, who has been heading up the team that's made the exhibition happen, asked if I knew anything about it. It shows a curler standing on the ice, with stones in the foreground, with a broom cowe under one arm. In his left hand he is carrying a pair of curling stone handles and bolts.

It turned out that, without initially realising the connection, I did know rather a lot about the painting, and especially the artist. David had got there before me of course, and he had described his purchase of the painting in an article in the Scottish Curler, back in April 1993, long before my association with the magazine.

David wrote that he had purchased the painting from a friend in Somerset, and that it had come from at auction in Stoke-on-Trent. He reflected on seeing the painting, "The picture was indeed dirty; and its frame was dirty and damaged, but oil paintings of curling and curlers are not so common that one can turn up one's nose. And so I bought it." David did not record how much he paid for it.

The painting is not signed, but after some research, David figured out the identity of the curler in the painting. He is Peter Thomson, an Airdrie baker, who was one of those taking part in the game depicted in the huge 'The Curlers at Rawyards' painting (see here), which dates from 1857, and that the artist was John Levack. 'The Curlers at Rawyards' hangs at the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life at Coatbridge. David describes his painting as a 'spin off' from this big composite portrait, and that the artist had perhaps prepared for the large work by first sketching how each person would appear in his finished work. He wrote, "Sometimes the artist later worked up these sketches into individual portraits." There's no proof that this is the case, but it is a likely scenario to explain the origins of David's painting.

Here is a closeup of Peter Thomson from the large painting. Compare it with David's painting at the top of this article. There is absolutely no doubt that both depict the same person. That it is Peter Thomson relies on the accuracy of the little name plates that adorn the frame of the larger painting. If these are correctly positioned, and are accurate, then the curler depicted is indeed Peter Thomson.

David concluded his article by noting that he knew of one other individual portrait by John Levack, of Provost Rankin, and wrote, "Perhaps this article may bring others to light, and perhaps also some more information about the artist who immortalised those Airdrie curlers of 136 years ago." By coincidence, I was to be the one to provide more information! 

Moving forward to 2016, I did not know about David's painting when I wrote about 'The Curlers at Rawyards', and its artist, in an article here. The story of John Levack is a sad one. He committed suicide, after, it should be said, having been jailed for beating up his wife. I wondered if she had survived, and what had happened to her. Some months after I published the article, I received an email from a descendant, and we began to correspond. Leslie Porter is Levack's great great granddaughter. Agnes, Levack's wife, did recover from her injuries, successfully supporting her family of five children as a seamstress for a theatrical company. Leslie is descended from the oldest of these, also called John, the artist's son, born before he and Agnes were married. John's daughter Catherine emigrated to Canada with her husband in 1927. They were Leslie's grandparents. Leslie was emailing me from St Catherines, Ontario, Canada. The Internet can be a wonderful thing!

Leslie sent me this photo of John Levack, artist, from the family archive. It may well be the only recorded image of him. He died in 1874, aged 46. He had married Agnes Laughlan in 1867.

Concentrating though on the curling connection, Leslie has an auction catalogue which describes the sale of other John Levack paintings. This was undated, but I was able to find out that it referred to a sale by Muir and Dalziel, an auction house in Glasgow, on Wednesday, February 23, 1910. Intriguingly, one of the paintings in the sale was described as 'The New Monkland Curlers'. One can only speculate that there is another John Levack painting 'out there', and what it depicted. Could it have been a preliminary sketch or smaller version of the huge 1857 painting? I wonder if it still exists.

A postscript to this article is that I've also been contacted by a descendant of Gavin Black, the local landowner on whose land at Rawyards the curlers were depicted. But that's another story!

The painting of Peter Thomson hangs in the rear of Case 1 at the exhibition. Over the next couple of months I hope I will be able to highlight some of the other treasures on show. And if you attend in person you will be amazed by the variety and quality of the items that are in the exhibition.

Thanks to Leslie Porter for sharing her family history with me, and for sending me the photo of her great great grandfather. Also to helpful staff at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, and at the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life. The large image is from the Art UK website. The others were taken by me. The painting of Peter Thomson which belonged to David Smith is now is in the care of the Scottish Curling Trust.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The curling stones at the bottom of the ocean

On the evening of September 3, 1939, the SS Athenia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the first UK ship to be sunk in such a way in WW2. The Donaldson line ship was bound for Montreal via Belfast and Liverpool, and when she encountered U-30 she was carrying 1,103 passengers, and 315 crew. One hundred and seventeen passengers and crew died as a result of U-30's action.

The Wikipedia entry about the SS Athenia is here. I was interested to read that 'Wartime German authorities denied that one of their vessels had sunk the ship'. 'Fake News' is not a recent phenomenon.

In the holds of the Athenia was a consignment of curling stones, bound for Canadian curling clubs. I had heard rumours of this, but I had not got around to researching the subject. However, a fellow curling historian was on the case, and last year David M Sgriccia, aka Angus McTavish, of the Detroit Curling Club, posted an article on his blog, see here.

I'll let David tell the story in his own words. I commend his article to you, and I know the hours he must have spent on research before he could write it. There's a lot in newspapers of the time about the loss of the Athenia, and even about the fact that it was carrying curling stones being sent to Canada by Andrew Kay and Co. But David, with help from Andrew Wyllie of Kays Curling, has unearthed the facts and figures, and we now know just how many curling stones lie at the bottom of the ocean, and to which clubs these had been sent.

I do want to quote just some words from his article, as it reflects how I feel about the story too. "It was a big loss for curlers to lose 278 curling stones, but we should never forget the 117 people who died that day from the sinking of the SS Athenia or the millions that died during the war years that followed."

The top image is courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

Friday, February 01, 2019

The Curling Image Project: Midterm Report

The Curling Image Project is taking a bit of a break, as I contemplate a house move over the next few months. The image above is a good place to start when considering the success, or otherwise, of the project.

But first a bit of history! It all began when in 2015 I learned about Sports Heritage Scotland, see here, and was intrigued by the posibilities of the various reminiscence projects that were being discussed, all to help patients with memory problems and dementia. Curling was one of the sports signed up to the Sports Heritage Scotland, with both the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and the Scottish Curling Trust among the original partners. I provided a number of old photographs to a fledgling Curling Memories Project, against the day that perhaps these might be useful.

Sorting through old photographs made me realise that perhaps I could myself provide a database of curling images for future use. I thought the best way to do this would be to post an image each day, building up a weekly collection of seven images in a Curling History Blog post, which could be viewed on a tablet or computer, or printed out. There are twenty-two weeks' worth of images now online, see here. Any individual week can be highlighted by clicking on the title of the post, and then printed.

The project needed a name, and so 'The Curling Image Project' was coined, somewhat grandly, but better than 'Bob's Old Photos'.

The positive on having these photos now on the blog is that they are there to use, in a permanent form, and I have been heartened by the comments that I have received. The photos themselves are varied in their content, and this is deliberate, given the underlying use to which they might be put.

I am sure that we all will know someone with Alzheimers, be it family or friend. It is just a horrible condition. It is especially bad for those who remember the sufferer when they were fully fit.

The photo above shows (L-R) John McFadzean, John Hutchison, Janet McMillan, John Wilson and Eric Johnston in 1971. The team had won the final of the 'big holiday competition' (now known of course as the Dalrymple Cup) where the winners of fourteen weekend competitions played off at the end of the season, with a Mediterranean Holiday to be won. Although the competition was to become a mixed event, in the early years it was open, explaining why in 1971 it was won by the team in the photograph.

Our team of young curlers from Glasgow were always very well received on our first forays to Stranraer's new rink. In 1971, I met Johnny McFadzean, playing lead for Hutch, and we hit it off from the start. I have the happiest memories of Johnny, May, and the children, at their farm (Airylick). In the mid 1970s, we curled together with our wives, and enjoyed holidays in Ibiza and Tenerife (thanks Hammy!). We hillwalked and we bothied. In the 1980s we walked the West Highland Way together, and then in 1983 hiked across Nepal to the Everest Base Camp area. We shared a love of the outdoors, of books, and of gardening.

Sadly, the Johnny I knew then is no more, a victim of that disease which causes sufferers to completely lose memory. I fortunately still have wonderful memories of Johnny and his family, and the adventures we had together. I wish he had too.

I trust I'll be able to return to The Curling Image Project in some months time.

(8x6 inch photo, by FH McCarlie, Stranraer. My email address is in the sidebar if you want to contact me.)

The Curling Image Project (Week 22)

CIP-148. Winners of the 'British Open' at Falkirk in 1972. L-R: Bill Carruthers (second), Willie Young (lead and skip), Jim Steele (fourth), Harry Ewing (MP for Stirling and Falkirk, presenting), and Willie Kerr (third). This was Willie Young's seventh win of this major competition. His team beat Graham Findlay and his Dunfermline team in the 1972 final. (6x8in print, Falkirk Herald.)

CIP-149. This is a group shot of visiting curlers at Crossmyloof, with their hosts. I haven't as yet been able to work out which tourists they are. Can anyone tell me? David Duncan is on the right, so that suggests the 1970s or early 1980s. The reproduction is really too small to be identifying other individuals, but I like the photo as it shows the extent of the seven-sheet curling rink at Crossmyloof, which holds fond memories for me, as that's where my curling career began! (9x7in print, photographer not stated.)

CIP-150. This is a promotional shot for the CBC Championship Curling event in Toronto in  December 1969. L-R: Ron Northcott (Canada), Bud Somerville (USA), Bill Muirhead (Scotland) and Christer Wessel (Sweden). These were four of the skips of teams that had played in the Air Canada Silver Broom at Perth earlier that year. Wessel had skipped and played lead for Sweden in 1969. His fourth player was Kjell Oscarius. This eight rink competition was 'videotaped' to produce a ten-week series of hour-long programmes for television in Canada. The event was won by Saskatoon's Merv Mann, who beat Somerville's team in the final. (8.5x6.5in print, CBC photo.)

CIP-151. The third 'Arctic Winter Games' were held in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1974. The photo is of the Alaska Junior Girls who won gold in the curling competition. L-R: Jodi George (3rd), Theresa Gryder (skip), Lisa Baucher (2nd) and Donna Gryder (lead). Next to the podium, in the sheepskin jacket, is three times Canadian and World Champion skip Ron Northcott who presented the medals. On the right is Lt Col Roy Fisk, the 'Chief Referee', as he is described in the article in the April, 1974, Scottish Curler. The multi-sport competition is still held every two years, see here.  (7x5in print, photographer not known.)

CIP-152. Winners of the Scottish Mixed Curling Championship 1991. L-R: Rhona Martin, Bobby Wilson, Mrs Rose Anderson (presenting), Robin Gray (skip), Joan Wilson, and RCCC President, Dr Derek Anderson. (8x5in print, Ron Vavasour, Photographer.)

CIP-153. Jim Law at a coaching weekend at Gogar Park in 1989. L-R: Karen Clark, Suzie Law, Gillian Gray, Fiona Sinclair, Fiona Barrowman, Clare Anderson, Julia Monteith. (10x8in print, photographer not stated.)

CIP-154. Here are the winners of the First Event at the Milwaukee TriScore Bonspiel sometime in the 1950s. The names are HT Ferguson (skip), Ralph E Welton, Dr Graham Fee and Alfred J Hudson, but not sure if it is a L-R. (7x5in print, Erwin F Nell, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.)

Photographers are credited when they are known. Check the archive (on the right) for previous Curling Image Project posts.