In December 1941, John Sawers donated eight watercolours and three drawings to Glasgow’s collections, including a striking watercolour, Pinks, by Charles Rennie MacKintosh. (1)
John Sawers was born in 1862 and died in 1945. He married Mary Watson in 1888 and they had three children, two daughters and a son.(2)
John Sawers, with his father Thomas and his brother George, was part of a well-known fish, game and poultry business within the city of Glasgow and beyond. The firm had branches in Birmingham and other English cities, as well as eight branches in Glasgow. There is also a Sawers in Belfast, which exists to this day. The company had a flair for publicity. For example, its fleet of vans were nicknamed after fish – Miss Haddock, Miss Crab and Miss Plaice.
The firm was the biggest buyer in the Glasgow Fish Market and could apparently “command any exotic sea creature, such as a shark, porpoise, turtle or monkfish as a centrepiece for their displays in Howard Street.” (3) The Oyster Bar within the fish emporium in Howard Street was legendary, and the gentlemen of Glasgow would congregate here to sample the wares and meet their fellow Glaswegians. It was the only licensed fishmongers in Scotland, so the city gentlemen could have their seafood with a glass of ale or porter.
When the Howard Street shop opened in 1890, a large banquet was held and many influential tradesmen and merchants in the city were invited. It was noted that “the banquet was given in almost regal style”. (4)
Figures 2, 3, 4. Tiled Panels from Sawers’ Howard Street shop and the shop interior. © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Many newspapers carried the story of the wonderful establishment and praised its designer, Mr J Winton Mackie, who was assisted by Mr John Sawer. “There is no more magnificent fish shop in Europe, and the splendours of the suggestive tiles and granite slabs must be inspected in order to be appreciated.” (5) The tiled panels, created for the shop by Doulton of Lambeth, attracted a great deal of attention and fortunately, when the firm folded in 1960 after attracting the attention of corporate raiders, Glasgow Museums rescued the entire tiled scheme and part of the mosaic fascia from the front of the shop.
Sawers also published an annual fish and game calendar and a cookbook ” Our Table Fishes: How to Choose and Cook Them”. (6)
In the early 1900s John Sawers bought a plot of land in Giffnock known as the Hollows. Here he built a house known as Eastwood Hollows. The house was designed by Andrew Balfour and was a fine example of an Art and Crafts House. (7) Balfour was articled to James Boucher and, during his apprenticeship, won a studentship to Glasgow School of Art (GSA). After finishing his apprenticeship Balfour worked with John Burnet. (8) The picture below shows the house and presumably the three children seated are the Sawers children.
John Sawers made a beautiful garden round his house, with a pond, a pergola and a greenhouse where he grew vines. The house was demolished, in the 1960s allegedly to make way for a road and a roundabout. (9)
John Sawers was more than just a fishmonger. He was clearly an art lover and in his obituary is mentioned as being an artist in his leisure moments. His obituary also states that he was “a pioneer of colour photography”.(10) He liked to surround himself with beautiful art, including his house in Giffnock. Even within his working environment Sawers incorporated art. His art can now be enjoyed by a wider audience thanks to his generous donation to Glasgow Museums.
1.Glasgow Corporation Minutes Nov 1941- May 1942 p.428
2.Scotland’s People: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
3. King, Elspeth (1991) The People’s Pictures, The Story of Tiles in Glasgow, Glasgow: Glasgow Museums
4. Stratten and Stratten (1891) Glasgow and Its Environs, Glasgow: Stratten and Stratten
5.The Baillie: October 1890 P4
6. Glasgow University Library, Special Collections.
7. Koch, Alexander, ed. (1901). Academy Architecture. Vol.19. London: Academy Architecture. pp 102,. 105.
8. Dictionary of Scottish Architects http://www.scottisharchitects.org
9. Giffnock Library Family History Centre: Memories and Information from the Mary D. Gardiner Archive, 23 rec 2092, April 2008
10. The Glasgow Herald: 18th April 1945