Patrick Scott: half a century as Irish art’s gold standard
Building Operations, Sundown (1956)
Light and shade: Patrick Scott at his home in Dublin. photographs: bryan o'brien
At 92, the artist’s work has been defined by an encounter with gold leaf. What does it all mean? ‘Oh, I’m very bad at talking about all that,’ he claims
We climb the spiral staircase of Patrick Scott’s mews house to find the painter installed on a sofa, a rug tucked around his legs, the afternoon light falling at an angle on his craggy face and unruly white hair. At 92 he is as instantly recognisable as his paintings, one of which, Meditation 2009, is on show at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin until the end of the month, and is the title image for the Arts Council’s mammoth Into the Light exhibition.
As the exhibition catalogue points out, Scott has been “central to both the visual arts and the cultural life of Ireland” over the past half-century. And he is still producing glorious gold-leaf paintings from the studio on the floor below, every inch of its shelves and work tables crammed with brushes, rolls of masking tape and a million mysterious bits and bobs in between.
“Oh, I am working,” he says. “I’m raring to go, as it were.” A knee injury sustained in a car crash forces him to rest more than he would like. He has hearing difficulties, too. “My dancing days are over,” he says – though the mischief dancing in his eyes tells a different story.
As his friend and carer Eric brings tea and biscuits, they banter back and forth about the house and its previous inhabitants. Eric is as well versed in the interview routine as is Scott himself, and skilful at addressing both interviewer and interviewee simultaneously. When a long silence develops, as it often does, he is equally skilful at prompting us both to get on with it.
Scott has owned this comfortable house-cum-studio since 1960, when a Guggenheim award from the US allowed him to give up his job as an architect and become a full-time artist. “It was still used as a stable,” Scott recalls. “Except there wasn’t a horse in it.” The eyes twinkle again. “There was a hen in it. The hen only stayed one night with me.”
The property actually consists of two houses, the first of which he bought from a Jewish matriarch who had been buying up properties in the area.
“What was her name?” Scott asks Eric. “Old Mrs . . . ” Eric shakes his head.
“Um. It’ll come to me. Tough as old boots she was, wasn’t she?” Scott beams in triumph. “I gave her £300,” he says.
The idea of buying a mews house in Dublin 4 for such a sum is hard to get your head around until you start doing some basic computations and realise that when Scott was born, in Kilbrittain, Co Cork, in 1921, Michael Collins was still alive and well and a year away from Béal na mBláth.
Times were tough for farmers in the Irish countryside in those days; nevertheless, Scott has happy memories of his childhood.
“There were five of us,” he says. “We were brought up in a house that had been built in the middle of the 19th century. When I was very small, I would go to the local rector – who had two daughters who were about the same age as I was – and we would sit round the dining-room table in the rectory, and he would get us to do drawing. Rather ordinary things. The fireplace and things like that. But we ended up mostly playing tig around the table.”
When the time came for young Patrick to get a job, the plan was that he would head to London, where an interview had been set up with a firm of architects. “I was due there on the morning of September 3rd, 1939,” he says. It was the day on which the second World War broke out. “Aunt Linda said to me, ‘Well, you can’t go there. Why don’t you go to Dublin instead?’ ” Aunt Linda, a wealthy friend of his mother’s sister, funded his studies at University College Dublin.