SHE was the last of a wealthy Scottish merchants’ family whose contribution to the Glasgow art world and generations of new artists cannot be underestimated.

Dr Helen Cargill Thompson died in October 2020 leaving a treasure trove of contemporary art, books and silver in her family home in the West End of Glasgow.

The arts patron left her house and its furniture to the National Trust for Scotland upon her death. Her vast collections of contemporary art has been auctioned off all with the intent of continuing her legacy of helping future generations.

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However, there is one piece which is a rare find that had hung in the drawing room of the family home in the city’s West End – a painting by John William Godward, entitled Poppies.

Now the painting is to be sold at auction on Thursday, 20 May by Lyon & Turnbull Auctioneers with a pre-sale estimate of £100,000-150,000. The proceeds going towards an education endowment trust at Strathclyde University.

Dr Helen Cargill Thompson with art pieces she donated to the University of Strathclyde.

Dr Helen Cargill Thompson with art pieces she donated to the University of Strathclyde.

“Dr Cargill Thompson was such a prominent figure in art circles in the West of Scotland that her collections have been difficult to value. The Godward especially as wonderful examples such as this do not appear on the open market often,” said James McNaught, Head of Glasgow for Lyon & Turnbull Auctioneers, who knew Dr Cargill Thompson personally. "This particular painting doesn’t fall in line with Dr Cargill Thompson’s usual collecting of contemporary works and we presume that it came through the Cargill side of the family who were well known collectors of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in Glasgow at the turn of the century."

The family home itself, designed and built in the Scots Renaissance style around 1906 by John Archibald Campbell, is unique. The Dining Room walls are covered in crocodile skin wallpaper and panelled in Austrian oak that came from one of the exhibition pavilions at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901. Indeed their neighbour, in Great Western Terrace, was shipping magnate and arts patron Sir William Burrell who in 1944 gave his vast collection to the City of Glasgow which formed the Burrell Collection in Pollok Country Park.

“When we were asked to assist with the dispersal of the collections from Dr Cargill Thompson’s home we didn’t know what we would discover,” Mr McNaught added. “There were family archives (retained by the family) which were still in trunks which were brought home with them from Burma and had never been opened. They arrived in Glasgow in 1937 and the trunks were just as they had been packed with their belongings.”

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Described as a true eccentric, Dr Cargill Thompson was brought up in pre-war Burma but the family returned to Glasgow before the outbreak of the Second World War, her father worked as a merchant trader.

Her life-long passion for art began as a child in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Galleries. She liked to say she began collecting in earnest in 1985 ‘’when Maggie Thatcher brought income tax down and I had some spare money,” but she came from a well-off family with her great-grand uncle David Syme Cargill founding Burmah Oil.

John William Godard painting Poppies will go under the hammer later this month

John William Godard painting Poppies will go under the hammer later this month

Educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, she then read Physiology and Pharmacology at St Andrews University before going on to do a PhD at Edinburgh University carrying out research into the contraceptive pill. In 1970, Dr Cargill Thompson began work at the Andersonian Library at Strathclyde University, being appointed as the head of the library’s new Reference and Information Division in 1982. Close to retirement in 1999, she was awarded the Princess Royal Medal for services to the discipline.

In her lifetime she gifted nearly 1,000 artworks to Strathclyde University which have been displayed in lecture halls, staff rooms and corridors throughout the university.

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Among the first items to be sold with Lyon & Turnbull included contemporary artist Avril Paton's Atholl Gardens painting which achieved £6,250 and a large collection of coins seeing £2,375. In the last few weeks Lyon & Turnbull also offered Dr Cargill Thompson’s collection of bronze sculpture by Shona Kinloch and David Meredith, unseen at auction until now and achieving ten times their pre-sale estimate with a combined result of £22,000 (including buyer’s premium).

Godward’s Poppies which will lead the forthcoming Five Centuries auction over two days on Wednesday May 19 and Thursday 20. Godward went against his family wishes when he chose a career as a painter and this disapproval was compounded when he left England for Italy with one of his models. It is believed that at this point he became estranged from his relations to such an extent that they removed his likeness from family pictures. He remained in Italy for almost a decade, only returning home in 1921. In 1922 he took his own life, with notes left by him indicating that he was struggling with his place in an artistic world that was now largely interested in the modern and contemporary.

Godward’s approach has been referred to as that of a ‘High Victorian Dreamer.’ Technically, he can be considered a Victorian Neo-Classicist, though at times his strong colour and posed subject have seen him be grouped with the Pre-Raphaelites, despite a differing inspiration source.

James McNaught, head of Glasgow and West of Scotland at Lyon & Turnbull.

James McNaught, head of Glasgow and West of Scotland at Lyon & Turnbull.

The painting may well have been in good company as in the early 20th century two of David Cargill’s five children made a conscious effort to collect French Paintings, including works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The collections of David W T Cargill and his brother William Cargill were renowned and three Impressionist paintings from William’s collection are now on display in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery: a Corot, a Courbet and a Seurat. The collection was sold and proceeds were used to form The Cargill Fund.

While it's tinged with sadness at being tasked with selling some of the effects of Dr Cargill Thompson, Mr McNaught said it has been a privilege to work on the collection. “I got to know Dr Cargill Thompson through her passion for silver collecting and support of events with the Hunterian Friends and other organisations throughout Glasgow. Without fail I would see her at talks and often be delivering new acquisitions to her home.”

Mr McNaught added: “Dr Cargill Thompson was a truly public-spirited Glaswegian, throughout her time at Strathclyde University she supported the Collins Gallery, which closed in 2013, and in 1999 she gifted her collection of contemporary art to the University and a portion of her Contemporary Silver collection to The Glasgow School of Art, of which the remainder has now been bequeathed.

“Dr Cargill Thompson would be sitting at gallery openings with fellow guests around who wouldn’t realise she had already put red dots on several items,” added Mr McNaught. “She travelled everywhere by bus and when asked why she didn’t just take a taxi on some dreich nights, her reply was ‘why would a I take a taxi when I can use the money to support others?’.

Mr McNaught concluded: “I don’t think Glasgow will ever see the likes of Dr Cargill Thompson again, a very rare breed and the last in the city from one of Glasgow’s most well-known merchant families. I’ll always remember the first day I stepped foot in her West End home and the last few months working on this project alongside her executors have been an honour. I am so pleased that her legacy continues through the sale with Lyon &Turnbull."