John McCall and Family

Dr Anthony Lewis, Curator of Scottish History

John McCall and Family

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

3rd March 2020

In 1965 Glasgow Museums added this painting, called John McCall of Belvidere and family; Family Group known as the Dennistoun to its collections. Although the artist remains a mystery there are enough clues from the clothes that the McCall family are wearing to date the painting to the late 1760s.

Unlike the Glassford portrait this does not feature a slave, but the McCall family, like the Glassfords and so many other Glaswegian businesses, were investors in slavery. It shows John McCall of Belvidere and Black House (1715–1790) standing with his second wife, Helen Cross (m.1764), and their first three children Sarah (1765), Margaret (1766) and Helen (1767).

It probably dates to soon after the birth of Helen and contemporaneous to the better known portrait of Glassford’s family displayed at the People’s Palace. The collection also holds portraits of John McCall’s brother, George McCall (2522), and his wife, Mary Smellie (2523). The pair probably represent their marriage portrait to celebrate and record their wedding on March 3rd 1765.

two portraits of people against dark backgrounds

Mary Smellie & George McCall

2523 and 2522
Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Glasgow Museums collections have many more portrait paintings from this period representing merchant families such as the Bogles of Daldowie, Lukes of Claythorn, Connells, Campbells or individuals including Lord Provost Andrew Cochrane. However, only the Connell (2609 and 2610), Glassford and McCall portraits show families, and married couples. Like the wedding portraits of John and Anne Glassford, the artist of the Connells and George and Mary McCall was probably Robert Harvie.

Leaving the attribution of artists to one side, other important considerations to bear in mind is that this family portrait is in itself a rarity presenting an important person in Glasgow and Scottish history. John McCall was tobacco merchant, industrialist and banker who worked in partnerships with others of that ilk, including Glassford at the Thistle Bank from 1761. The McCall’s house, known as the Black House, was on the north east corner of Queen Street and Argyle Street, and as a part of Glasgow’s Georgian New Town. McCall was also a neighbour of John Glassford, William Cunninghame and other prominent tobacco and sugar merchants.  He is, by that measure, physically and financially linked with the city’s institutional investments with transatlantic chattel slavery.

Dr Anthony Lewis,
Curator of Scottish History