Artist with a golden touch
Eight decades after first taking up a brush, Patrick's Scott's passion for art and life are undiminished. Ahead of the release of a major book on his career in painting and design, he talks to Fiona McCann
AT 87, PATRICK Scott is no stranger to interviews. Within the past five years alone, he has been interviewed by Se Merry Doyle for his documentary The Golden Boy, Vera Ryan for her two-volume book Movers and Shapers, and Irish Timesvisual arts critic Aidan Dunne for the biographical essay that forms the text of a new book on this prolific Irish artist, titled simply Patrick Scott.It's no surprise then, that he finds the process somewhat repetitive.
"I've said all this so many times now that I find it hard to know what bits to emphasise," he explains when we meet in his Baggot Lane home in Dublin. The octogenarian artist has been through a bout of ill-health, and is sipping barley water before the fire in what has been his home and studio since he bought it some 50 years ago.
Yet despite a marked impatience with the kinds of questions about his life and art that he has been answering for years, Patrick Scott is far from curmudgeonly. Aged 87 and, as he says himself, "not in the first flush of youth", he is a charming, gentlemanly individual with a shock of white hair and a slightly disorientating habit of avoiding direct answers, choosing instead to pluck an anecdote from the air that suddenly elucidates a subject long after you had abandoned all hope of a response to the question posed.
He's been painting for more than 80 years now, and despite the fact that he had no formal training ("Heavens, no!"), he has become one of the most successful visual artists this country has ever produced.
Born in 1921 in Kilbrittain, West Cork, he began painting at an early age - as, he points out modestly, "a lot of children do". Yet unlike a lot of children, Scott persevered, despite coming of age in a country where cultural concentration was primarily on text-based arts - theatre, poetry, literature - with visual arts struggling for a foothold.
"When I was growing up, I only knew one other artist my age, and he didn't last very long," he admits.
Ireland's artistic development was also particularly hampered by the introduction of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act, which formed the basis for literature censorship in the country for decades afterwards.
"The 1930s were awful years, with all the censorship and awful interference from the terrible archbishops," says Scott. "The censorship of books was stupid and it did upset people. It was an awful, bigoted time."
Scott's anger as an artist against such measures has been little tempered over the years, yet the oppressive environment didn't stop him painting. Grim economic realities, however, meant that he was forced to seek some form of paid employment over a concentration on his passion, resulting in a stint studying architecture at UCD - "we taught ourselves," he recalls - during which time he happened upon a poster on Dublin's Lower Baggott Street advertising an exhibition, and wandered in. What he saw was the inaugural show of the White Stag Group, which had been established in London by Basil Rakoczi and Kenneth Hall, both of whom were in attendance. It was a pivotal moment in Scott's life and career as an artist.
"I got in with these people who'd come to Ireland during the war years, called the White Stag group, and they gave me such encouragement when I was a student," he recalls. "That was a real turning point."
Scott remembers the group as transformative for the visual arts scene in Ireland as a whole. "There was a kind of liveliness during the war years, really because of the White Stag people. They sort of brightened up the scene."
SCOTT WENT ON to exhibit alongside several members of the group in 1944, in a show that even garnered a mention in Myles na gCopaleen's Cruiskeen Lawn column in this paper. It was the White Stag Gallery which hosted Scott's first solo exhibition, a show which garnered him a critical hammering that he now dismisses.
"I got the most terrible reviews, but it didn't affect me at all. When you get stupid people saying stupid things about you, there's no point in worrying about it," he says.
A critical panning was not to deter him from painting, which he did in his time off from a job he took with architect Michael Scott, in the firm that went on to become Scott Tallon Walker. It was during his employment there that Patrick Scott was assigned to work on the building which now houses Busáras, devising mosaics for several areas within the complex.
"It was very influenced by Corbusier," says Scott of the building that now operates mainly as a hub for regional bus services. "We were all students straight out of UCD and there were only three books on modern architecture, and they were all Corbusier's books."
Architecture, while providing him with a living that his painting couldn't at the time, did not exactly enrich the young artist.
"In fact, just before it became Scott Tallon Walker, the accounts had to be looked into and it was discovered that Michael was paying me £1,000 a year," says Scott. "And that year that we opened the accounts, he had spent £9,000 in Jammet's restaurant. It was so ludicrous really, I could only laugh."
Scott found ways to supplement his income over the years, designing carpets, leaflets, and sets for the stage, including one for The Playboy of the Western World, with Siobhan McKenna as Pegeen Mike. Scott had strong theatrical connections, having worked with Micheál MacLiammóir and his partner, Hilton Edwards ("They were great pals of mine, Hilton and Michael"), and through his life-long partner, actor Pat McLarnon.
Though openly gay, Scott maintains a delicacy about the subject that seems to preclude intrusions into his personal life, evident in his references to McLarnon, who lived with Scott in his Baggot Street house until his death in 1997. He refers to him as "a great friend" and recalls that McLarnon's steady presence was one of the reasons he remained in Ireland all his life.
"We shared a house together for more than 50 years," he says. "I had a good home life."
The house that became his home with McLarnon was purchased in 1958 for £365, with the adjoining mews bought six years later, by which time Scott had given up architecture and was working as a full-time painter.
"I had a painting bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and that gave me a great uplift, and I decided it was time that I stopped being an architect," he remembers. "I enjoyed it, but it was getting in my way."
In 1960, he was chosen to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale ("That gave me an extra fillip, of course") and soon after made the leap into full-time painting. "That was when I devoted my whole attention to painting, and it totally transformed my life," he says.
This was when Scott painted some of his most overtly political works, the Device paintings.
"They were when all these nuclear devices were being tested out on these small Pacific islands," he recalls. "It was a kind of protest at that . . . I wasn't getting up and shouting about it, or anything. It was my way of making a statement, which probably never affected anyone."
It was in the late 1960s, however, that Scott's experimentation with gold leaf was to lead to a series of paintings that have since become his best-known work, the Gold paintings. He didn't stop there, however, continuing to work in tapestries, screens, on Eastern landscapes and a series on Mount Fuji. Though he has had acknowledged periods of artistic block, he has overcome them with characteristic anti-drama.
"I never got really depressed by it," he says of these moments of pause. "It was what I did and I just had to get down and do it, you know."
Dismissing any fanciful notions of the artist awaiting inspiration - "I don't believe in inspiration really" - he simply, as he explains it himself, got on with the work. "I needed to paint. It was the driving force that kept me going. I wanted to do things and know that I could do them, so I had to keep working."
HE CONTINUES TO work to this day, despite health problems and weakening eyesight, and is particularly proud of his most recent output.
"I've had patches when I didn't work as well, but I've been fairly prolific in my old age," he says. "I'm still working."
The fact clearly pleases him, as does the publication of Patrick Scott. "I'm glad to be alive for this book," he says, expressing his gratitude to those who helped to bring it into being within six months of its genesis. "It's a big undertaking to take on a book about your whole life."
He pays tribute to Eric Pearce in particular, who was responsible for the research, image selection and placement on the project.
The book itself is a tribute to an artist who has been prolific, persistent and passionate about his work, even in an artistic milieu very different from that which exists today.
"The whole scene is changed totally. The art school is full of wonderful young people compared to when I grew up," he says without a trace of bitterness. "I could never have foreseen this happening from my own experience."
Given that he himself developed without any kind of encouragement and guidance, is there anything he would pass on to those coming in his wake? "Keep at it," he says simply. "That's what you do."
Patrick Scott is published by Liberties Press