Renowned writer and artist Alasdair Gray dies aged 85

Book publisher Canongate confirmed that the Lanark author 'passed away peacefully' on Sunday.

Legend: Writer and artist Alasdair Gray. Getty Images
Legend: Writer and artist Alasdair Gray.

Legendary Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray has died – a day after his 85th birthday.

Book publisher Canongate confirmed that the author “passed away peacefully” on Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in his native Glasgow in the presence of family.

As per his wishes, his body will be donated to medical science.

His family said: “Early this morning we lost a deeply loved member of our family.

“Alasdair was an extraordinary person; very talented and, even more importantly, very humane.

“He was unique and irreplaceable and we will miss him greatly.

“We would like to thank Alasdair’s many friends for their love and support, especially in recent years.

“Together with the staff of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Glasgow, who treated him and us with such care and sensitivity during his short illness.

“In keeping with his principles Alasdair wanted his body donated to medical science, so there will be no funeral.”

Gray, who was born on December 28, 1934, was a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art.

His novel Lanark – which combined realist and dystopian surrealist depictions of his home city of Glasgow – was published in 1981 by Canongate and was described as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction”.

It was followed by more than 30 further books, all of which he designed and illustrated, ranging from novels, short story collections, plays, volumes of poetry, works of non-fiction and translations – most recently, his interpretation of Dante’s Divine Trilogy.

His public murals are visible across Glasgow, with further examples of his work on display in galleries from the V&A to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Francis Bickmore, Gray’s editor and publishing director at Canongate, said: “What sad news this is that Alasdair Gray is gone.

“It seems hard to believe that Alasdair was mortal and might ever leave us. No one single figure has left such a varied legacy – or missed so many deadlines – as Alasdair Gray.

“At least through Gray’s phenomenal body of work he leaves a legacy that will outlive us all.

“His voice of solidarity and compassion for his fellow citizens, and his forward-looking vision is cause for great celebration and remembrance.”

His agent, Jenny Brown, added: “We mourn Alasdair Gray’s passing, but his genius will live on for readers through his remarkable work. “He was a cultural trailblazer: nobody has done more to spur on, and give confidence to, the next generation of Scottish writers.”

Gray’s creative talents spanned the arts

Described by some as the nearest Scotland had to a Leonardo da Vinci, Alasdair Gray was a creative polymath whose work spanned the arts.

Born on December 28, 1934, in the Riddrie area of Glasgow, to Alexander and Amy, Gray was evacuated to a farm in Auchterarder, Perth and Kinross, during the Second World War along with his mother and younger sister, and then to Stonehouse in Lanarkshire.

From 1942 to 1945 the family lived in Yorkshire, where his father was working, before they returned to Glasgow where the young Gray attended Whitehill Secondary School, receiving prizes for art and English.

He attended Glasgow School of Art from 1952-57, studying design and mural painting, and went on to make his living from writing, painting and teaching.

It was in the 1950s that he began writing what would become the novel Lanark, which was published in 1981 to great critical acclaim, winning a Scottish Arts Council book award and the Scottish Book of the Year award.

Hailed as a modern classic and mixing fantasy, autobiography and social realism, it tells the interwoven stories of Lanark and Duncan Thaw, and is set in the cities of Glasgow and Unthank.

He went on to write many more books, several of which he illustrated. His other works of fiction include Janine (1984), Something Leather (1990) and Poor Things (1992), which won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

He was also editor of The Book Of Prefaces, published in 2000, and wrote short stories, poems and plays for radio, television and theatre.

Over the years he also made his name as a painter, creating work closely intertwined with the city which was his home.

He worked as a theatrical scene painter for the Glasgow Pavilion and Citizens theatres in 1962-63.

In 1977 he was Glasgow’s official artist-recorder for the People’s Palace local history museum, painting portraits of contemporaries and streetscapes of the city.

He also painted murals at various locations around the city, including the renowned Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in the west end, Greenhead Church of Scotland in Bridgeton and Belleisle Synagogue in Giffnock, though the latter two buildings have since been demolished.

More recently he painted a huge mural on the ceiling of the Auditorium at the Oran Mor arts and entertainment venue and on the wall of Hillhead Subway station in the city’s west end.

In late 2014 a major retrospective was held at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow to celebrate his 80th year.

More than 15,000 people visited the show, titled Alasdair Gray: From The Personal To The Universal, which brought together more than 100 works spanning his career.

It included some of his best-known paintings such as Cowcaddens (1964) and Night Street Self Portrait (1953).

During the course of his career Gray was also involved in teaching and academia, working as an art teacher, mostly part-time, in Glasgow and Lanarkshire between 1958 and 1962.

He was writer in residence at the University of Glasgow from 1977 to 1979 and held the chair of creative writing jointly with Tom Leonard and James Kelman at the institution from 2001 to 2003.

In 1961 he married Danish nurse Inge Sorenson, with whom he had a son Andrew, born in 1963, however their marriage ended in 1969 and they subsequently divorced.

His second marriage came in 1991 when he wed Morag McAlpine, who died in 2014.

His autobiography, Of Me & Others, was published in 2014.

He was a supporter of Scottish independence, penning Independence: How We Should Rule Ourselves, which was published in June 2014 as Scotland geared up for the independence referendum, while he also decorated the front page of the Sunday Herald the day it declared it was backing a Yes vote in May that year.

In June 2015 he was badly injured in a fall at his home, which affected his mobility, though he later returned to work.

Last month Gray was given a lifetime achievement award by the Saltire Society for his contribution to Scottish literature.

Tributes

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described Gray as one of Scotland’s “literary giants” and a “decent, principled human being”.

“He’ll be remembered best for the masterpiece that is Lanark, but everything he wrote reflected his brilliance.

“Today, we mourn the loss of a genius, and think of his family,” she added.

Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh tweeted: “Alasdair Gray was a unique talent.

“In Lanark, and 1982 Janine especially, he wrote two of the greatest Scottish novels and influenced a creative generation.”

The University of Glasgow described Gray as “one of the true greats of Scottish art and literature”.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the university, said: “He was writer in residence at the University of Glasgow in the late ’70s and was always a strong and close friend of the university.

“It is with great sadness that we mark his passing, but the many works he produced, from his magnificent novel Lanark to the inspiring murals that adorn the city, ensure that his legacy will live on for many years to come.”

Sarah Mason, programme director of the Saltire Society, said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of Alasdair Gray’s death. 

“To say Alasdair was a one of a kind, only scratches the surface of this remarkable man. 

“Immensely important to Scotland and internationally, Alasdair, his work and influence have never been confined by genre and can be seen in a myriad of art forms. 

“His inspiration has reached generations and will continue to do so for many more to come.

“We were honoured to have presented Alasdair with the inaugural Saltire Society Lifetime Achievement Award in November, and to have the opportunity to celebrate his tremendous talent in this way.

“Scotland has lost a true master of creativity.”

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, added: “Scotland has been blessed with a host of great writers over the past 50 years, but if history remembers only one, it will likely be Alasdair Gray.

“He was a bright star in a luminous constellation of northern lights; a game-changer whose boundlessly innovative, cross-disciplinary thinking paved the way for so many others to succeed.

“We can thank Alasdair not only for his own great work, but for his role in creating the conditions for a literary renaissance that has, in so many different ways, changed most people’s understanding about what it means to be Scottish today.”