Issue Number: 118
As her four-volume catalogue raisonné is published on William Scott’s centenary, Sarah Whitfield shares some of the results of her research into his life and work
Any serious artist deserves long hard scrutiny, but for the art historian so much depends on how much archive material is available. William Scott (1913-89) was not one to keep his papers tidily, but his wife, Mary, had the good sense to subscribe to a press cuttings agency from 1938, and she kept copies of all Scott’s exhibition reviews, private view cards, and correspondence.
William Scott, 'Nile Valley Red and White', 1962. © 2013 William Scott Foundation. Such invaluable material informs the William Scott Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings, but perhaps most illuminating was the artist’s hoard of postcards and images torn out of books and exhibition catalogues – he had clearly acquired the collecting habit from his student days.
Indeed, when it came to material he thought might prove useful creatively, Scott was an assiduous hoarder. Sources ranged from African pottery, Egyptian figures and limestone reliefs, to Assyrian lion hunts, Babylonian script, Viking bowls, Celtic tomb chambers, as well as paintings by Chardin, Corot, Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse. So we discover that the dirty white and bright orange-reds of Egyptian limestone reliefs reappear in the plaster whites and searing reds of Scott’s Egyptian series, as seen in Nile Valley Red and White from 1962. Without the postcards of pictographs found in ancient sites in Ireland, the link with the abstract imagery of his later work might not be understood.
Scott claimed that his Presbyterian upbringing was partly responsible for his austere simplicity of style. This, and the soft grey skies of County Fermanagh, may have steered him towards Chardin’s still lifes in the Louvre, and the austere Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs in the British Museum (his early formation as a sculptor at the RA Schools is never absent from his work.)
Fighting against this austerity though, is his blazing delight in the sensuality of the painted surface. The still-lifes of the late 1950s, in which objects drift slowly across the canvas, gradually vaporised by thickly textured paint, reveal both Scott’s formidable craftsmanship and his rich painterly imagination. In the later paintings of the 1970s, the colour, surface and what he called ‘the disconcerting contour’, that he so relished, may be greatly simplified, but they remain clear evidence of his love of ancient stone sculpture, as well as his command of drawing. Very few artists of his generation were able to marry with such ease the art of the distant past with the demands of a modernist idiom – and carry it off with a calm authority. The acute intelligence Scott brought to looking at art of all periods is one very good reason for paying close attention to his own painting. It is many masterpieces deep, and as such it teaches as much as it delights.