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New Glasgow gallery notes its connection to Van Gogh and beyond

When Ewan Kennedy first mooted the idea of setting up a contemporary art gallery in the Glasgow city centre property he had owned for over a decade, the retired solicitor had no inkling of the building's place in the history of Scottish art.

It was only once he started working on refurbishing and stripping it out with a builder friend that he discovered the space must have been used for showing art at some point.

"We were working in the building last October," explains Kennedy. "As we opened out the space the proportions started to make us both think that the place had plainly been no ordinary shop.

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"The front window is massive and it also has these lovely wee windows above the door. So I went online to check the 1913 valuation roll and when I saw the name Alex Reid on the deeds, I almost fell off my chair."

In that moment, Kennedy had stumbled upon a slice of Scottish art history. Friend to some of the biggest names in late 19th and early 20th century European and North American art, Reid was described by Tom Honeyman, legendary director of Kelvingrove Art Gallery, as "a prince among dealers".

Further investigation by Kennedy revealed that Reid's gallery, variously known as La Societe des Beaux-Arts, Alex Reid & Son and Alex Reid and Lefevre, operated from this address from 1904-1932.

A supporter of the Glasgow Boys, Scottish Colourists, the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Reid made a profound impact on the cultural life of Scotland. He was the go-to guy for the leading collectors of the day, including Sir William Burrell and thread magnate W.A. Coats.

His friendship with brothers Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, with whom he briefly shared a Parisian apartment, may have ended when they all fell out, but Vincent's portrait of Reid in Kelvingrove (often mistaken for a self-portrait - such was the likeness between the two men) is a masterpiece which lives on as a marker of Reid's influence.

Further investigation by Kennedy of old Post Office directories in Glasgow's Mitchell Library showed the premises at 117 West George Street had been designed by William Leiper, a celebrated Glasgow architect who also designed the Templeton Carpet Factory on Glasgow Green.

Kennedy says: "I discovered that the board of directors of Sun Insurance - now occupied by Sarti's restaurant - were so into art that in 1894 they commissioned a gallery from Leiper which was built across the street from their office. They also commissioned sculpture from William Birnie Rhind, one of the leading architectural sculptors of the day."

Before Reid moved into the premises, the gallery had been operated for almost a decade by the Van Baerle Brothers from Holland, who sold mainly Hague School paintings.

In a fascinating book, Van Gogh's Twin, published by the National Galleries of Scotland, author Frances Fowle describes Reid's gallery thus: "The main room was furnished in a fashionably eclectic style: a Queen Anne table and cabinet, Chippendale chairs and Sheffield candlesticks were displayed alongside more 'aesthetic' Japanese objects: a lacquer chest, two Oriental rugs, Japanese embroideries, blue and white porcelain and a large picture by Hokusai. All these objects were for sale, and several collectors bought furniture and Japanese objects from Reid's gallery."

Today, the newly-opened Leiper Gallery (named after its celebrated architect) has a stripped back look, with clean walls and original polished wooden floorboards. Its walls are lined with contemporary Scottish painting by Kennedy's award-winning nephews, Paul and Adam Kennedy, as well as Sue Biazotti, Annette Edgar, Liz Knox, Jennifer Irvine, Charles Jamieson, Simon Laurie, Ian McMillan, James McNaught and Ronnie Smith.

Kennedy says the gallery's philosophy is to provide the public with an opportunity not only to acquire art but also to learn about the contemporary art scene and the reemergence of the city as a centre of artistic excellence.

He adds: "We intend to commemorate the great artists of the past and those who supported them and with this in mind, we shall be working on the conversion of the basement of the premises to create a permanent exhibition dedicated to Alexander Reid and the incredible portfolio of artists he represented and sponsored."

By sheer happenstance, it seems the artistic flame ignited by Reid, one of the few dealers whom Degas allowed over the threshold of his Paris studio, continues to burn brightly almost 110 years after he first set foot in 117 West George Street, Glasgow.

The Leiper Gallery, 117 West George Street, Glasgow, G2 1QR, 0141 204 1644, www.facebook.com/LeiperFineArt. Now open

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