Thomas John Honeyman, or T. J. Honeyman as he was commonly known, was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow in 1891 at a time when the city was at the peak of its industrial powers. As a young man Honeyman studied medicine and served with distinction in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Following the war, he returned to Glasgow to practice medicine in the East End. It was during his medical studies and later practice in Glasgow that Honeyman first fell in love with art, as he himself recalled:
When I was a medical student, I used to spend maybe two days a week in the art gallery because I couldn’t afford the lunch in the union. I went down there with my sandwiches and my apple, and you weren’t supposed to do that, but when the attendant wasn’t around I would be munching my apple and looking at the pictures and my interest and appreciation for art stems from that time.
Honeyman also attended evening art classes and regularly frequented the galleries and dealerships of Glasgow. At this time, he met the enigmatic dealer Alexander Reid, who initially appointed Honeyman as his family physician, but later invited him to abandon the medical profession and pursue his passion for art - and in 1929, Honeyman joined Alexander Reid & Lefevre working firstly in Glasgow and later in London. During his tenure at the gallery, Honeyman was exposed to some of the greatest art of the day and in particular, became an expert in the work of the Post-Impressionists at a time when they had little popular traction in Great Britain. Honeyman’s time at the gallery instilled in him a thoroughly modern outlook on art and in 1939 he was asked by the Glasgow Corporation to take on the role of Director of Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
He remained in this role from 1939-1954, contributing tangibly to both the Art Gallery and the City of Glasgow itself. At a time when the cultural centre of Scotland had firmly shifted to Edinburgh after economic and industrial depression between the wars, Honeyman worked tirelessly to revive artistic activity in Glasgow. Believing passionately in widespread public access to art, he sought to increase interest and awareness of Glasgow’s important municipal collection by bringing art into the spheres of everyday life.
Honeyman achieved this by challenging the public. He drew on his experience and interest in avant-garde European art, securing bequests of works by Picasso, Braque, Matisse and, most notably, Van Gogh. Introducing special exhibitions and popular afternoon lectures, he was able to arouse public interest, bringing visitors to the Gallery and creating an environment which encouraged discussion, learning and the exchange of ideas. In 1952, he famously purchased Salvador Dalì’s Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), controversial for its cost of £8,200 and highly modern style. It is to Honeyman’s credit that it would continue to inspire the public long after his tenure ended, even if that led to it being attacked by a visitor with a stone in 1961. Significantly, it is a hallmark of his Directorship that many of his purchases have subsequently gained enormously in value and become significant attractions for visitors.
George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), whose works make up a significant proportion of Honeyman’s collection, was one of the four Scottish Colourists alongside John Duncan Ferguson, F.C.B. Cadell and Samuel Peploe. Large self-taught whilst growing up in San Francisco, he was inspired by French Post-Impressionist art after a 1908 meeting with Gertrude and Leo Stein. Like his contemporaries, his works are characterised by bold, bright colours and loose, textured brushwork. Honeyman published the first monograph dedicated to Hunter’s work in 1937 titled, Introducing Leslie Hunter. Moreover, the Colourist Artist’s were further linked by Honeyman in his important book Three Scottish Colourists, published in 1950. Their legacy today owes much to his eye for exciting, modern art, as well as for artists whose sensibilities were distinctly Scottish. Honeyman's contribution to the cultural and artistic fabric of Glasgow and Scotland are enormous and the group of works offered at Sotheby's from his private collection are an incredible testament to this truly visionary man.