Patrick Scott: half a century as Irish art’s gold standard
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.
Why did he choose architecture? “I had to,” Scott says. “At whatever age I was – 19 or something – you couldn’t just set yourself up as an artist, selling paintings. I got to that eventually. But that was much later.”
Does he remember his first exhibition, at the White Stag Gallery, in 1945, with Basil Rákóczi and Kenneth Hall? Eric retrieves the catalogue from a shelf and Scott leafs happily through the pages. These early paintings might be by a different person altogether: black-and-white scenes with finely etched, naive-style birds and animals. “Birds in the trees,” he says. “Birds on the shore. That’s the zoo. Look.”
I can see a leopard. And peacocks.
“Yes. I had these Indian toys. There was a little shop down in Talbot Street which had a stock of old Indian wooden painted toys. That’s where they came from.”
He is similarly unceremonious about his discovery of gold leaf. “I was doing a thing for Michael Scott at the Four Provinces House on Harcourt Street, the headquarters of the bakers’ union,” he says. “They had a coat of arms, and they wanted that put out on the side of the building, and it had to have gold leaf. So I bought a thing of gold leaf, and I used it, and thought it was rather fascinating.”
Is it difficult to work with? “Once you get used to it, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s a bit frightening when you start. It’s so thin, you see. You have to learn how to pick it up – use something magnetic, a brush, or something to lift it, you know – which I didn’t know at first. You can’t handle it. It just falls apart. So once I got over that, I was away.”
Though I press for descriptive details, Scott can’t, or won’t, elaborate any further on the aesthetic appeal of the material that has been so central to his work for more than 40 years. “I just felt it worked with the blank canvas that I was using. I tried it out on that and I thought, I like this. So I went on at it.”
Texture? Contrast? A suggestion of divinity? “I liked the look of it,” he repeats. After a long silence he adds, “Oh. I’m very bad at talking about all that.”
Perhaps it’s not the job of the visual artist to put words on a body of work. Others have done so over the years, including the Irish Times art critic, Aidan Dunne (see panel, right), whose book Patrick Scott was published by Liberties Press in 2008.
In 1997 Dunne’s predecessor, Brian Fallon, described Scott’s painting as “elegant, poised and hieratic”. The poise may be ascribed to his interest in Japanese painting, the distillation to the essence of image and shape. Scott has never been a practising Buddhist, but it seems that the quietude of Zen philosophy reflects something calm and practical in his personality. The lives of artists are often filled with drama and change; Scott’s, by contrast, appears to have been marked by stability and serenity.
He did kick up a fuss, however, when an enormous Aubusson tapestry he had made for Bank of Ireland was left rolled up – with ruinous results – while a cleaner mopped the floor. “The only other time I saw you outraged was when your retrospective at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College was cut short without your being informed,” says Eric. “That’s the only other time I’ve known you to be agitated – about anything, really.” That was in 1981.
He is grateful for the support he has received from the Arts Council over the years. As early as 1968, Fr Donal O’Sullivan, then head of the Arts Council, bought Gold Painting 18, which was shown at the Limerick City Gallery of Art section of Into the Light.
White One (Arcady 8), from 1974, is on show with his 1982 hanging Flag at the Model in Sligo. Meditation 2009 is the poster image for the entire exhibition.
On the opening night at the Hugh Lane Gallery last autumn, Scott was, as Eric recalls, a bit of a poster boy himself. “After the photoshoot with Enda Kenny and the curators, I went to take Pat into the other room,” he says. “And Kenny looked at me and said, ‘Can I drive?’
“And he wheeled Pat in, and then mixed that into his speech, about sharing a little bit of Pat’s journey.”
“And,” adds Scott, quick as a flash, “my hearing aid was beside my bed at home. I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. And I had television cameras on me all the time. So there I was, looking like a gawm, not reacting to what he was saying.”
Such are the perils of celebrity. Did he enjoy being made a fuss of?
Scott makes a face. “Do I enjoy being made a fuss of?” he asks Eric.
“You do not enjoy being made a fuss of,” is the solemn reply. “You never have.”
They both laugh. Then Eric produces his trump card. “At the end of the evening I said to Pat, ‘What’s it like to be feted as an icon?’ And he said, ‘Hmm. Let icons be icons.’ ”
Circling the square: Three notable Scotts
Building Operations, Sundown (1956),from the artist’s collection: In the 1950s Scott painted a number of subjects, including landscapes, sports fields, gardens, interiors, still lifes and, here, a construction site, that allowed him to move towards abstraction. Painted on to a flat dark ground, the facade of a building broken only by an oblong of evening sky, the linear scaffolding bears a striking resemblance to a geometric grid. It’s clear that he is editing things out as much as putting them in, gradually refining his pictorial language. From early on he gravitated towards a spare, simplified aesthetic.
Big Solar Device (1964),on show at Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane: Inspired by the test detonations of nuclear bombs, Scott’s “Device” paintings from the early 1960s are as much about the sun as a motif, especially as it appears on the Japanese flag, which he greatly admires as a piece of design.
The glowing fireball of Big Solar Device marks a transition from a series of amorphous bog landscapes to the image of the solar disc, for which he remains best known. The paint is applied directly to unprimed canvas in the manner of American colour field painting, and Scott has continued to use this technique ever since.
Gold painting (late 1960s onwards):When he started using gold leaf, Scott managed to combine two key elements of his work in one elegant formula: the circle or disc and the right-angled geometric grid. Applying the square sheets of gold or, less often, palladium leaf directly on to unprimed canvas produced a grid pattern, often bounded by a circular outline. He developed many variations of this approach and on occasion has moved beyond it, but his work remains anchored to the fundamental constants of circle, square and symmetrical pattern.
As he remarked once, he doesn’t conceptualise: “When I sit down to work, I usually draw a circle.”
Great Scott: A life in art
1921: Born in Kilbrittain, Co Cork.
1939-45:Studied architecture at University College Dublin; exhibited with the White Stag Group, English pacifist painters who had relocated to Ireland during the second World War.
1945-60:Worked for the architectural practice of Michael Scott (no relation); was involved with the design of Busáras and with the livery of the orange-and-black Iarnród Éireann trains.
1960:Represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale; won the National Award at the Guggenheim International Exhibition in New York; became a full-time artist.
2007:A founder member of Aosdána, Scott was made a saoi, a lifetime award granted to only seven artists at a time.
Into the Light is at Crawford Art Gallery, in Cork, until February 23rd; at the Hugh Lane Gallery, in Dublin, until February 24th; and at the Model, Sligo, until March 31st