William Scott

The life and work of the Ulster master painter illuminated by Jenny Cathcart

Over the past year, the internationally renowned artist William Scott, who died 20 years ago on December 28, 1989, has been honoured in Ulster with a major exhibition at the FE McWilliam gallery in Banbridge. 

This autumn, Fermanagh County Museum displayed all ten of his works from its collection in a show entitled Line, Form, Colour. One painting, 'Yellow Matrix', was presented to the people of Enniskillen by the Scott family in memory of those who died or were wounded in the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing.

The Ulster History society is planning to place a blue plaque at 2 Queen Street in Enniskillen, where Scott spent his childhood. Scott’s 45ft long x 9ft high mural, commissioned for the Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry in 1959, will be on show as part of the Belfast College of Art’s centenary celebrations.

William Scott painting the Altngelvin muralWilliam George Scott is buried in Breandrum cemetery in Enniskillen alongside his father William, his mother Agnes, and his wife Mary. Their headstone is inscribed 'Art was their life and life was their art.' 

William Scott senior, an Enniskillen man, emigrated to Greenock in Scotland, where he married Agnes Murray. Their son, William was born there on February 15, 1913 and nine other children arrived like steps of stairs.

Following the Great War, times were hard, and the Scott family returned to Enniskillen, where William set up his own business as a sign painter and decorator. 

On a cold November day in 1927, a fire broke out at Kirkpatrick’s drapery store, a three storey building in the main street. Scott was the first man up a ladder to ply a hose on the flames, but was soon overwhelmed. 

A second man climbed up to assist him but the ladder snapped, the upper half resting in the balance for a few seconds before crashing across the street, Scott along with it. The dismayed groan of the crowd was followed by a shocked hush and then a flurry of activity as Scott was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

William Scott was just 14 years old when his father died, but he inherited his artistic talent. He said he grew up in a grey, austere world where his only garden was the cemetery. He likened the colour tones in his paintings to the infinity of greys in a Fermanagh sky. 

He had the good fortune to receive private lessons from Kathleen Bridle, an outstanding local teacher and graduate of the Royal Academy in London who shared with Scott her love of French impressionist painters. When Scott arrived in Belfast, he knew more about the impressionists than his teachers at the College of Art.

The townspeople sponsored Scott’s studies in Belfast and later at the Royal Academy schools in London. Though he moved away from his family, he remained nostalgic for the place where he grew up. In later years, the weekly delivery of The Impartial Reporter to his home in Somerset kept him in touch with news from Fermanagh.

The 1985 Channel 4 drama documentary Every Picture Tells a Story, directed by Scott’s son, James, and featuring Natasha Richardson as Kathleen Bridle, juxtaposes scenes of Twelfth of July marching bands and orange banners with Scott’s abstract works such as 'Orange Table Top'. Scott himself appears, a dapper, distinguished figure, sitting passively in front of the camera, presumably already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, his comments relayed in voiceover.

In 1937, Scott married Mary Lucas, a fellow student at the Royal Academy. Both had won Leverhulme scholarships and they travelled to Italy before setting up a summer school with Geoffrey Nelson at Pont Aven in Brittany. Soon Scott had a studio in Chelsea and a cottage at Hallatrow in Somerset where he could indulge his love of market gardening. The north Somerset countryside reminded him of Northern Ireland.

'Egyptian Series No 4'During the 1950s, Scott was head of painting at Bath Academy. His own still life paintings depicted simple objects - pots, pans, eggs, fish, bottles on a kitchen table. He intended that the poetry should be in the painting rather than in the objects themselves. 

Then he began eliminating recognisable imagery and the colours became greyer until he was painting solely in black and white. Critic Clive Bell praised his gift, 'a truly remarkable gift for placing'. 

Others found a poetic resonance in his work while admiring the sensuous creamy richness of the paint. In the Sunday Times, Frank Whitfield wrote, 'There is much more to Scott than near abstract compositions of pots and pans simplified to within an inch of their (still) lives.'

In 1954, Scott exhibited along with Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth at the Martha Jackson gallery in New York. He was the first European painter to visit Jackson Pollack’s studio on Long Island and he also met Rothko and Kline. 

Whilst he was impressed by the audacity and self confidence of the Americans he realised that it would be a mistake to imitate them. Scott reflected, 'There is a whole tradition, the descent from Chardin through Cezanne to Braque and Bonnard which has no part in their painting and that’s the tradition that I’ve always held to.'

However, it soon became clear that Americans had a keener appreciation of British abstract art than the British themselves. It must have been unsettling for Scott when commentators criticised his minimalist style. Caroline Tisdall of the Guardian was irritated by the 'annoying mannerist character of his pursuit of the process of abstraction and simplification.' 

Scott was able to discuss abstraction with his artist neighbours in Cornwall, the so-called St Ives group: Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron, but ultimately he was on his own.

In 1959, the Belfast Music and Art Gallery purchased 'Brown Still Life' for £168. It was judged dark, ugly and meaningless. Around the same time, though he was unaware of Scott’s Ulster connections, Eugene Rosenberg, the London based architect of a new hospital at Altnagelvin near Derry, commissioned Scott to produce a mural which would have pride of place in the hospital foyer. 

The large-scale project provided Scott with the freedom to eliminate horizontal lines and all suggestions of still life. He divided his picture into vertical sections and boldly and rhythmically applied paint with a brush or a palette knife creating blue and brown shapes against a white ground. His overall aim was to convey an emotion.

When it was unveiled, the good people of Derry could not make head nor tail of the Altnagelvin mural. A reporter from the Belfast Telegraph described it as 'awful' and 'ridiculous'. Some years later Sir John Heygate, a collector of Scott’s work, who lived near Derry, complained to the hospital authorities that public notices were being pinned to the mural.

William ScottScott and his wife travelled extensively. At Lascaux in France and in the Nile valley in Egypt, ancient wall paintings pleased Scott’s penchant for primitivism. Following a year in Berlin where Scott revelled in 1920s nostalgia and the seductive charms of Marlene Dietrich, he produced a series of searing sapphire blue and white works entitled Berlin Blues

When he returned from Osaka he painted fish. Indeed fishing on the Erne was a favourite pastime whenever he returned to Enniskillen.

Fermanagh based artist Philip Flanagan, whose father TP Flanagan was a close friend of Scott, recalls a summer visit the Flanagans made to Scott’s farmhouse at Coleford in Somerset. 

Philip was impressed by the interior walls which could be moved to catch the light as Scott painted. Fruit from a pear tree trained up an outhouse wall became a leitmotif in Scott’s still life paintings. 

As he watched Scott draw with a thick black pencil, Flanagan realised that it had taken 50 years of painting and drawing to achieve such a perfect line.

During his lifetime Scott’s work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in solo and group shows in Brazil, America, Canada, Italy, France, Switzerland Germany and Japan. The Tate Gallery in London mounted a major retrospective in 1972 as did the Ulster Museum in 1986. He received honorary doctorates from Queen’s University in Belfast and from Trinity College in Dublin.

Norbert Lynton’s comprehensive and uncompromising monograph includes illustrations of Scott’s work in all media – sculpture, drawings, watercolours, oil paintings, murals and gouaches. The photographs are revealing of the artist’s life: Jorge Lewinski’s eloquent black and white portraits of Scott in his studio; musician Julian Bream taking tea with the Scotts in the garden at Hallatrow; Scott’s flatmates, Dylan Thomas and Fred Janes snapped sunbathing in Earls Court; 'Nude with Stockings', a colour photograph of Sondra Cohen, who modelled for Scott’s life drawings in the early `70s.

Those who knew William Scott remember him as a quiet, reserved man with a droll sense of humour. His sons recall his remarkable capacity for hard work. The Times' obituary said Scott might be termed 'one of the puritans of abstract painting'. 

At his funeral service, Terence Flanagan read Dylan Thomas’s poem, 'Do not go gentle into that good night' and paid tribute to Scott’s artistry: 'Although William was not a landscape painter, I think the lessons of landscape were always just at the corner of his eye. How else could he have found his moist greens and that vivid blue he made his own, like a piece of pure sky glimpsed through a tear in the clouds?' 

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