Why it might finally be time to shout Great Scott
William Scott’s still lives fell out of fashion - but this is the year that could bring them back
Detail from Still Life with Garlic (1947). Photographs: The Estate of William Scott
Detail from Still Life with Orange Note. Photographs: The Estate of William Scott
I f ever an artist’s reputation was in urgent need of rescuing, it is William Scott’s, writes Sarah Whitfield in her recent study of the painter. He was one of a “lost generation” of British artists whose work developed within the mainstream, essentially European modernism. For a time they flourished critically and commercially but they were “overwhelmed” by the advent of Pop and other movements in the 1960s, and by the subsequent fragmentation and diversification of artistic practice, which undermined the whole idea of a single, dominant tradition or form.
This year is the centenary of Scott’s birth, and to mark the event Tate St Ives, in Cornwall, has organised a touring retrospective exhibition that offers a significant opportunity to reassess his life’s work. The first venue is Tate St Ives, after which the show, gaining additional works along the way, will travel to the Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, and then, in October, to the Ulster Museum, in Belfast, where Scott studied art. There are also related exhibitions in Enniskillen, Bath and Hastings.
Scott’s links with Northern Ireland are strong. The eldest of seven children, he was born in Greenock, on the Clyde in Scotland, and spent his first 10 years in a grim tenement there with his parents and siblings. His mother, Agnes, was Scottish; his father, also William, was from Enniskillen and harboured dreams of returning there. He did so, unannounced, one day in 1924, presenting his family with a fait accompli and instructing them to join him.
Scott snr was a house- and signpainter, and he taught his son the skills of the trade and, impressed by the boy’s drawing ability, encouraged him to think of being an artist. He was fortunate in enlisting the support of Kathleen Bridle, an enlightened young art teacher who had recently arrived in the town. She had studied at the Royal College of Art, in London, along with the sculptor Henry Moore, a friend of hers. As a teacher in the technical school and local schools, she enrolled young Scott in free art classes and noted his capacity for hard work and hunger for knowledge of art history.
Tragedy struck, however, when fire engulfed a building next to his father’s signpainting premises. It was thought, mistakenly, that someone was trapped inside, and Scott snr volunteered to carry a hose up a ladder. The ladder gave way, and he fell to his death. It was a disaster for the family, not least financially.
Bridle enlisted the help of the local art inspector to organise a community scholarship fund so that Scott could go to Belfast School of Art. The regime there was extremely conservative, and he found that he knew more than the teachers about recent developments in art, thanks to Bridle’s library. In fact, his introduction to art history was via the work of Cézanne, Picasso and Modigliani, among others, all of whom were unmentionable in the Belfast school.
His instinct was sound. After three years in Belfast, he and a fellow student applied to the Royal Academy Schools in London, encouraged by the promise of free tuition. Pragmatically, he applied to the sculpture department because he thought it would be easier to get into, and spent his first two and a half years as a sculpture student, shrouded by clay and plaster, until he switched to painting. Again, he was ahead of the institution in his artistic reach. At the same time, he was suspicious of such prevailing trends as surrealism and postcubist abstraction.