Scott of the aesthetic: 70 years of golden art

Painter, printmaker, architect, designer: Patrick Scott, who has died at the age of 93, made an inestimable contribution to Irish cultural life

Circle of life: Patrick Scott in his studio. Photograph: Kevin Dunne

Circle of life: Patrick Scott in his studio. Photograph: Kevin Dunne


Throughout the past 70 years or so Patrick Scott, who died today at the age of 93, wove his way through the intricacies of Irish cultural life with the fleet-footed lightness and grace of Fred Astaire. His contribution was enormous and his talent considerable, but he was mostly content to work away quietly, with no great fuss.

Highly regarded among his peers and by a wider audience, he had many exhibitions of his work as painter and printmaker, including regular solo shows at Taylor Galleries, as well as several substantial surveys. Still, Patrick Scott: Image Space Light , divided between the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin, and Visual, in Carlow, is the first retrospective to convey the sheer breadth of his activities across fine art, design and architecture, and is a fitting tribute to his life and work.

Scott is renowned for the elegant simplicity of form that sums up his aesthetic sense. It is more a principle than a style, and one he consistently applied whether designing a Christmas card or making a painting.

Dorothy Walker noted his “unerring, absolute taste”. As Brian Fallon eloquently put it when reviewing an exhibition of his paintings in 1977: “Patrick Scott has perfect taste, in a country where even imperfect taste is rare.” And Brian O’Doherty paid him the exceptional compliment of saying he had produced “the most consistently excellent body of work of any Irish artist”.

Born on a large coastal farm at Kilbrittain, Co Cork, in 1921, the youngest of four children, he was the family’s “golden boy”, as Sé Merry Doyle’s fine 2004 documentary about him is titled. As the economic war of the 1930s drove the farm towards bankruptcy, the family was rescued by his mother’s sister, Jane, whose affluent companion, Linda Parbury, bailed them out. That included paying for Scott’s schooling at St Columba’s College in Dublin. His early desire to be a painter was regarded as wildly impractical, and in time “Aunt” Linda wrote him a generous cheque for £1,000 and dispatched him to Dublin to study architecture.

During the war years he did exactly that, at University College Dublin, but he also became involved with the White Stag Group, part of an influx of outsiders who did much to enliven Dublin’s social and cultural life at the time. Largely composed of conscientious objectors who had opted for exile in Ireland, the White Stag artists championed a quirky variant of European modernism. While Scott’s early exhibited paintings are comparatively representational, one can discern in them motifs, especially the right-angled grid and the circle, that eventually came to dominate his work as a painter. He remains quite dismissive of his early efforts: “I was a kind of primitive, really, an Irish Grandma Moses.”

Scott lived as a gay man in Dublin at a time when the values of conservative Catholicism were in the ascendant, and the distinction between church and State was increasingly blurred. True, he moved in a relatively bohemian circle that included, crucially, Micheál Mac Líammóir and Hilton Edwards. Although both were gay, London-born Protestants, they managed to carve out a unique niche in Catholic Ireland and contrived to be the national gay couple, accepted and embraced by everyone.

Never wholeheartedly an architect, Scott nonetheless, after graduating from UCD, went on to work for Michael Scott, then Ireland’s foremost modernist architect, for 15 years. Nominally, he gave up working as an architect in 1960, but his bonds with Scott, whose firm was by then recast as Michael Scott and Partners and, from 1975, as Scott Tallon Walker, amounted to a lifelong friendship and commitment on both sides.

During his time as an architect Scott was closely involved in the development of Busáras, and he designed the mosaics that are such a prominent feature of the building. His increasing recognition as a painter, including representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale and winning a Guggenheim award in New York, gave him the confidence to commit to being a full-time artist, but he never quite abandoned other, design-oriented pursuits.

With Louis le Brocquy, Michael Scott had established the Signa Design Consultancy in 1953. Loosely modelled on the photographic agency Magnum, it promised a battery of design skills. In reality, design conundrums were often deposited at Scott’s door. Assigned to come up with a livery for CIÉ trains, for example, he turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: his favourite cat, Miss Mouse. (He loved cats, and at one stage provided a home for 16 of them.) He translated her black, white and orange coat into the horizontal bands of colour that identified carriages for several decades. But, Scott pointed out, it wasn’t just whimsy: the black band successfully camouflaged varying window heights on the rolling stock.

During this time he also ventured, very successfully, into set design, notably working on touring productions of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World for Shelah Richards and Brendan Smith.

His mature aesthetic vision was significantly determined by his friendship with the American painter Morris Graves, who moved to Ireland and looked for architectural advice in 1955, and he and Scott became friends. Graves was interested in Zen Buddhism and had visited Japan; he identified instinctively with the traditional Japanese ethos, within which every aspect of life is infused with an aesthetic sense, so that art and life are ruled by a guiding spirit of harmony. In his attitude to life and work, Graves embodied much of what Scott felt instinctively, despite not visiting China and Japan until the 1980s, and never formally studying Zen.

When he was travelling by rail to work on John Huston’s house in Galway, Scott was intrigued by the diffuse, watery light over the midland bogs. He addressed it pictorially by soaking pigment into raw, unprimed canvas. He developed that idea in his Solar Device paintings: the “devices” are nuclear bombs detonated in test explosions, mimicking the sun in explosive bursts of light. In retrospect it seems but a short step to the works of his maturity, for which he is best known: his gold paintings, in which gold leaf is laid directly on unprimed linen.

He has remarked, quite seriously, that his major influences as a painter include memories of the limitless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean at Kilbrittain and the Japanese flag, a flat solar disc against a white ground. Using uniform squares of gold and palladium leaf, he combined this latter motif with the right-angled grid that underlies so much 20th-century abstract art, to come up with the format that provided him with a rich, inexhaustible language of pictorial exploration ever since.

Instinctive empathy
His singular evolution as an artist, and empathy with the idea of an aesthetic that underlies every aspect of life, meant he never fell prey to the cultural snobbery that separates fine art from craft. Much of what he did for Signa and elsewhere falls under the heading of commercial design, but that didn’t bother him in the slightest in his approach. Within the province of his personal work he felt free to make tapestries, and to design and paint screens and tables.

Among his noteworthy design projects was his 18-year term, from 1969, on the board of Kilkenny Design Workshops. He was happy to be involved, and his frank view at the time was that the standard of design in Ireland was appalling. He was more than a background presence and threw himself into making the project work. Although he believed it reshaped Irish attitudes to design quality, he felt it failed in its larger, more ambitious aims.

Scott also played a crucial role in the first Rosc , in 1967. The brainchild of Michael Scott, the exhibition aimed to bring the best international contemporary art to Ireland. Scott was asked to design its presentation at the RDS. To general approval, he transformed the Main Hall through the ingenious, extremely economical employment of muslin. He also designed the cover of the catalogue (and its three successors), and in 1980 he was himself an exhibitor.

Considered in isolation, any area of Scott’s achievement – as an architect, designer, painter or printmaker – amounts to something exceptional. Looked at in the round, his contribution to Irish cultural life and, more, to the quality of Irish life since the mid-20th century is inestimable.

Patrick Scott: Image Space Light is at Imma, Dublin, until May 18th, and Visual , Carlow, until May 11th . Some of Patrick Scott’s w ork is also on show at Taylor Galleries, Dublin, until March 1st

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