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date: 22 March 2023

Wyllie, George Ralstonfree


Wyllie, George Ralstonfree

  • Duncan Macmillan

George Ralston Wyllie (1921–2012)

by unknown photographer, 1969

courtesy of the George Wyllie Foundation

Wyllie, George Ralston (1921–2012), artist, was born on 31 December 1921 at 53 George Street, Glasgow, the son of Andrew Wyllie, engineer's clerk, later printer, and his wife, Harriet, née Mills, grocer's shop proprietor. He was brought up in the city within sight of the shipyards. There, as he put it, he was 'disadvantaged by a happy childhood' (Life story so far …, George Wyllie archive). He went to Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, where he learned technical drawing. After working as an office boy in a shipping company, he began to train as an engineer in the Post Office. During the Second World War he joined the Fleet Air Arm, then the Royal Navy, seeing active service as an electrical artificer on HMS Argonaut. With the navy he visited Hiroshima about two weeks after the city's devastation, an experience that affected him deeply. On 16 September 1944, in Gosport, he had married Daphne Winifred Watts (1924–2004), daughter of William Herbert Watts, a food inspector for the Admiralty. They had two daughters, Louise and Elaine. Meanwhile, after leaving the navy, in 1948 he became an officer in the customs and excise, working in Glasgow, Prestwick, Northern Ireland, and Greenock. In 1954 he and his family settled in nearby Gourock, which became their permanent home.

Wyllie took up sculpture at a relatively late age and, known earlier by his second name, Ralston, when he did so took his first name and became George Wyllie. The only training he received was a welding course in Greenock and sculpture remained a spare-time activity until he retired from the customs and excise in 1979. His steel sculptures were already decorating a number of Glasgow bars by then, however, and in 1976 he had also had a major exhibition at the Collins Gallery. Meeting Joseph Beuys through Richard Demarco and indeed working with him and visiting him in Düsseldorf influenced Wyllie profoundly, as he readily acknowledged. He also maintained, however, that Beuys influenced him 'not in a physical sense, [but] in a philosophical sense' (Joseph Beuys, George Wyllie archive). Thus he recognized how Beuys's example stimulated his own engagement with socio-economic and environmental issues. The American-Scottish kinetic sculptor George Rickey, whom he met in Glasgow and also visited in America, was another key influence on his later work.

Wyllie's best-known works included Running Clock (2000), a clock on two legs running as though to catch a bus, sited outside Glasgow's Buchanan Street bus station, and Monument to Maternity (1995, installed 2004), a giant nappy pin on the site of the Rottenrow Maternity Hospital also in Glasgow. They are light-hearted, but his wit and sense of fun were also harnessed to more serious, even polemical purposes. The most remarkable examples of this were his Straw Locomotive of 1987 and his Paper Boat launched in 1989, both inspired by his indignation at the extinction of the traditional industries of the west of Scotland. The Straw Locomotive was a full-sized straw effigy of a steam engine. It hung for several weeks from the Finnieston Crane, the last great crane on the Clyde, and was then ceremonially burnt as though in a Viking funeral. After the conflagration a large question mark was revealed at the centre of its wire frame. The whole performance was a grandly ironic obsequy for Glasgow's heavy industries.

Built with a Gulbenkian award, the Paper Boat was a replica 78 feet long of an origami paper boat. Also slung ceremonially from the Finnieston Crane, it deployed a similar metaphor to the straw locomotive: where once great ships were built of steel, now they can only be made of paper. Paper is also a vehicle for thought, however, and the boat opened to reveal a large, concealed question mark. Sailed to the City of London and to New York, among other places, the boat was greeted by crowds and with great ceremony. It also took with it copies of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, the book in which Smith complemented what he said in The Wealth of Nations with the argument that to exist at all society depends on our capacity for sympathy and sympathy in turn depends on imagination, which we now see as the province of art. Wyllie also tackled similar issues in A Day Down a Goldmine, a two-handed play first performed in 1986 in Glasgow and London, when he himself took one of the parts.

Inspired by the pioneer ecologist Patrick Geddes, the need for balance between human requirements and the environment became the theme of much of Wyllie's later work. The bicycle that depends definitively on balance was one metaphor that he frequently used. Blake's Bike (1994) and Life Cycle (1995) were among many examples. These ideas were most economically expressed, however, in the numerous variations of his Spire, usually a tall, lance-like pole balanced with a rock at its base and articulated so that it could swing between the air above to which it pointed and the earth beneath towards which it was weighted. A prominent example is the Millennium Garden Spire (1999) commissioned by Strathclyde University.

Wyllie was usually described as a sculptor, but in his own characteristic coining he was a ‘scu?tor’. The question mark was there because, he said, 'I was never quite sure it was sculpture' (Beginnings, George Wyllie archive). Indeed, his work was often as much conceptual art and performance as conventional sculpture, but the question mark also represented his constant questioning of the status quo. Throughout his career he produced innumerable squibs, projects, performances, and indeed more permanent sculptures. A film on him by Murray Grigor took as its title his sobriquet The Why?s Man (1990) and a poem by Liz Lochhead celebrating him opened with the lines 'Who is the man it pleases as much to doubt as to be certain?' (A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie, The Colour of Black and White, 2003, 93). He was a well-known and popular figure in Glasgow. His work has also been seen as a catalyst in subsequent developments in the visual arts in the city. However, although he undertook a number of public commissions, perhaps because his work was so often ephemeral or was simply too unconventional, he is not widely represented in public collections, Glasgow's civic collection being the honourable exception.

Wyllie played the ukelele, not only in various bands in his youth, but often also in his performances. He received a Creative Scotland award in 2000. In 2005 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Strathclyde and also gifted his archive to that university, which held a major exhibition of his work in 2012. He was appointed MBE in 2011, was a member of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, and served as president of the Society of Scottish Artists. He died at Inverclyde Royal Hospital, Greenock, on 15 May 2012, of septicaemia and pneumonia, and was survived by his two daughters.


  • George Wyllie archive, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
  • The Scotsman (17 May 2012)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (17 May 2012)
  • Daily Telegraph (17 May 2012)


  • University of Strathclyde, Glasgow


  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, ‘The cosmic voyage: George Wyllie’ (2005),



  • photograph, 1969, The George Wyllie Foundation, Scotland [see illus.]
  • A. Mcdougall, photographs, 1994, Rex Features, London
  • D. Cheskin, photograph, 2005, PA Images, London
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, Camera Press, London
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