William Scott Centenary Exhibition

Watch video from the Ulster Museum's major retrospective, which runs until February 2

The centenary of his birth has been marked by major retrospectives in leading galleries on both sides of the Atlantic, at Denenberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles, at Tate St Ives and The Hepworth Wakefield. But none has given the family of William Scott more genuine pleasure than this landmark homecoming exhibition, which has just opened at the Ulster Museum.

Scott was 16-years-old when he first walked into what was then the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and feasted his eyes upon the Lloyd Patterson Collection of modern British art. These paintings by, amongst others, Augustus John, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Walter Sickert and, particularly Stanley Spencer, had a profound effect on the young man, as the idea gradually formed in his mind of becoming a painter.

For the next two years, until he left for London, Scott was a regular visitor to the Museum, and echoes of the influences he discovered on its walls would resurface time and time again in his work.

Born in Greenock to Scots-Irish parents, Scott was nine when the family moved to Enniskillen, his father's native town. But, three short years later, tragedy struck, when his father, a gifted sign writer and house painter, was killed in a fire while attempting to save the lives of others. It was left to his mother Agnes to bring up and educate 11 children.

It soon became clear that young William had inherited his father's artistic talent and acute draughtsman's eye. While he was still a pupil at the Model School, he signed up for night classes in art at the local Technical School. His tutor was Kathleen Bridle, whose influence on the budding artist was recognised in the 1984 biopic Every Picture Tells a Story, directed by his son James.

Leaving Enniskillen as a teenager, Scott took off for the big city, joining an illustrious community of young artists at Belfast College of Art. He did not exactly excel there in his first year, but he and a friend William Tocher heard that the Royal Academy Schools in London were offering scholarships to talented students. They threw their hats into the ring and were accepted.

There a brave new world opened up. He won a silver medal, became a Landseer scholar in painting and was awarded a Leverhulme scholarship. Less salubriously, he shared a flat with two bohemian Welshmen, the artist Alfred Janes and the poet Dylan Thomas. Most important of all, it was here that he would meet his future wife, the sculptor Mary Lucas.

'William and Mary were two very different individuals,' says Scott's older son Robert, a retired designer, who, like his Oscar-winning film-maker brother, is a director of the William Scott Foundation. 'Our mother came from a family of industrialists. Our father was from a working-class background. What they had in common was the fact that they were both workaholics.

'We were always aware that our parents were special. Throughout their life together, she was an immensely powerful influence and a tremendous support, as well as being a fine artist in her own right, of course. They used to discuss his work at home in the evenings, his plans, ideas, concepts for paintings. Our mother's face and figure are everywhere in his work.

'They are buried together in Enniskillen under a headstone which is engraved with the words "Art was their life and life was their art". This is an emotional occasion for us. As a family, we are absolutely delighted that such a significant exhibition – the most extensive to date – is happening here in Northern Ireland, a place that was very dear to him.'

Given that Scott died only 24 years ago, both brothers have lived with these remarkable paintings for most of their lives. They grew up in Somerset, where their father had taught for a number of years at Bath Academy of Art. James recalls returning from boarding school to discover new paintings created in their absence.

'One of the things I found most exciting was to come back home and go into his studio and see what he had been up to. He was always creating something. But although he spent out of his life away from Northern Ireland, Enniskillen was always close to his heart. He had the Impartial Reporter popped through his letter box every week. Right up to the very end of his life, he like to read the obituaries to see who was still around.'

The significantly augmented Ulster Museum exhibition, which spans six decades and includes a number of works on paper, has been expertly and sensitively curated in chronological order by Anne Stewart, National Museums Northern Ireland's curator of fine art.

'We've been planning this exhibition for a very long time, because Scott is the foremost artist of his generation to have come from Northern Ireland,' Stewart says. 'The exhibition enables visitors to journey with the artist from the pre-war period through to a high point in his career, when he represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 1958. It then continues on to his later works, in which he developed an increasingly contemplative, almost chaste manner of painting.'

Stewart leads the way around the Ulster Museum gallery spaces dedicated to the exhibition. 'The first gallery shows the period when, as newly graduated artists, he and Mary took off for Italy and France. They lived in Italy for six months, before settling in Brittany, where they set up the Pont-Aven School of Painting.

William Scott

 

'These paintings of Breton fishing villages and local people include 'Girl and Blue Table', which was inspired by Matisse. There are also paintings of Mary, who would be a constant presence in his work throughout his life. When war broke out, they had to leave Brittany very quickly. The next significant phase of his work dates from 1946, as nothing much happened in British art during the war years.'

But, unexpectedly, the first painting to be encountered by the public is 'The Betrayal' by Sir Stanley Spencer, whose early inspiration is evident in Scott's superb medal-winning student composition 'The Adoration of the Shepherds', which hangs alongside. It is an inspired touch by Stewart, who also includes JMW Turner's 'The Dawn of Christianity (The Flight into Egypt)' in the exhibition.

'I felt it was important to include these two treasures from the museum's permanent collection, as Scott would have stood in these very rooms and looked on them many times. He had a great respect for Turner and you can discern his influence on Scott's composition and use of texture. He must have spent hours studying these great artists and stored their techniques in his mind.'

Reflecting on his strict, even austere, Presbyterian upbringing, Scott once famously remarked: 'I find beauty in plainness, in a conception that is precise.' This memorable phrase guides us into the gallery where we are to be found some of Scott's best known paintings. Under the Ulster Museum's state-of-the-art new lighting system, the works, most of which are unglazed, seem to leap off the walls.

Scott always considered himself a European artist. He was influenced by artists like Matisse, Braque, Chardin, Bonnard and Rousseau and, on seeing these paintings in the flesh, one is left in no doubt that he fits right in with those distinguished names.

Under his acute, far-seeing eye, everyday objects like pottery bowls, a frying pan, garlic cloves, a candlestick, a dead hare, a knife, a couple of eggs lie flat against a stretch of solid colour, yet are endowed with extraordinary poetic feeling, primitive beauty and a strangely compelling sensuality.

'The still life forms dominated his career and the table top took on the underlying structure of so many of his paintings,' explains Stewart. 'He wanted the beauty of the works to shine through in the painting rather than in the content.

'After the war, like so many artists, he had to virtually reinvent himself. He went back to some of the great still life painters like Velasquez and Chardin, who imbued simple domestic objects with great resonance. But in his case, he found his own vocabulary and language by painting them in a modern idiom. In the process, simple objects took on a kind of monumental power and timelessness.'

It is intriguing, as one moves through the galleries, to keep looking forward and backwards, to gain a sense of the continuum of artistic development. Over the years, Scott's works became more spare, moving gradually towards monochrome shapes and lines. 'The Harbour' of 1952 registers initially as a black gash across a white and pale grey space, but look back to the 1939 Harbour painted in Brittany and the shape of the pier, the rich terra cotta and slate pigments of that earlier painting, are clear influences.

It is as though, as the years went by, Scott retained colours and shapes vividly in his mind, but was gaining the confidence to strip them back to bare, minimalist but entirely recognisable compositions. Similarly, 'Seated Figure' (1954) appears to have been painted entirely in monochrome, but closer inspection reveals layers of rich textured colour lurking beneath the black lines.

There are strong echoes of the style of Jackson Pollock, to whom Scott was introduced by his future US dealer Martha Jackson, while on a visit to New York. 'Scott was certainly influenced by leading American artists like Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and Kline,' adds Stewart. 'But, above all, going to New York affirmed him as a European painter.

'We are thrilled to be bringing his work back to Belfast in his centenary year. He is an artist of major international importance and it is wonderful to such a large body of his work displayed here. He haunted these galleries as a young man. It was here that he began to look closely at paintings and to become a painter.'

William Scott Centenary Exhibition runs at the Ulster Museum, Belfast until February 2.

William Scott