The first time I saw an Alexander Millar painting I felt that I was looking at another LS Lowry. There is something touching about any images which capture the smallest details of an ordinary working class existence whilst perfectly illuminating the spirit of the individuals and the landscapes they inhabit. The downtrodden masses become fascinating subjects and there is an air of intrigue about the otherwise banal.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Whereas Lowry’s works are notable for their crowds, Millar focuses on individuals, couples and small groups. The characters are often viewed from behind and you rarely see their faces. Everything you need to know about them is projected from their clothing, their posture and their body language. I say body language because Millar’s characters somehow feel like they are in motion. The pictures are like a snapshot of life and you instinctively know what went before and what is to follow. These faceless people represent their entire communities and the lives of the working class. They speak for everyone and no one, they are everybody and yet distinctively themselves.
Millar’s popularity comes as no surprise and to an extent neither does his background. His pictures suggest an unremarkable working class heritage, a small world minutely observed. Millar was born and brought up near Kilmarnock in Scotland, the son of a railway worker. He left school at 16 and moved to Newcastle in the north east of England where he held a variety of mundane jobs before settling on art as a career. This was an unlikely choice as he had no formal training at all.
Many of his works feature a working class man in a cloth cap, a character which is referred to as the “gadgie” a term which is Geordie slang for bloke. Millar has said that the “gadgie” started out as his grandfather, morphed into his father and has gradually become himself in many ways. Women also feature in his work and he has described the ladies who inspired them as “missile shaped”!
A Lifetime in One Moment
Despite his lack of training Alexander Millar’s rise to fame was comparatively quick and his popularity has endured. He is one of the most successful contemporary artists around and is happy to acknowledge that producing his creations is far from being hard work. His joy in his art is evident in the wry humour of his images and he is a true master in summoning a wealth of emotions from just a single figure. His “gadgies” and his brilliant use of light transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and portray a lifetime in a snapshot.
I always thought that if I was ever in the fortunate position to be able to invest in a work of art that I would choose to purchase a Lowry but now I am not so sure. I just might find myself at an auction one day bidding on an Alexander Millar instead. I knew an art collector once and I asked him what he looked for in a painting. He said that he simply bought things because he liked them rather than as a financial investment or for the prestige. I think this was great advice that I would like to follow but it is going to cost me a pretty penny nonetheless. There are clearly a lot of people who like Alexander Millar!
Sally Stacey is a keen writer and art enthusiast who studied art history in London.