William Scott Centenary Exhibition
Jenny Cathcart visits the Fermanagh County Museum to discover more about 'one of the titans of 20th century art'
William Scott, CBE, RA, who is recognised as one of the titans of 20th century art, was born in Greenock on the banks of the Clyde on February 15, 1913.
At the age of 11 he settled with his family in Enniskillen, his father’s home town. Though he became famous worldwide for his signature still life paintings, the artist, who died in 1989 in the same week as Samuel Beckett, is buried in Enniskillen.
To mark the centenary of Scott’s birth, Fermanagh County Museum at Enniskillen Castle is showing an exhibition entitled Full Circle. Alongside those original works by Scott which the museum owns hangs an array of recent paintings by some 250 local schoolchildren, each of whom spent a morning at the museum studying, then interpreting, a Scott painting in their own style.
Initiated by the museum’s curator, Sarah McHugh, and facilitated by Genevieve Murphy, the schools project was designed to raise awareness of Scott’s international profile as a pioneer of modern art while affording these budding artists the opportunity to have their work framed and shown alongside the originals. Among those who took part were pupils from the Model School in Enniskillen where Scott himself studied.
They picked out the pots and pans, the fried eggs and pears, then put their own stamp on Scott’s unmistakable style. Inspired by ‘White and Grey’, Marcin Wright included in her picture a heart shaped message to Scott – 'I love William Scott' – and a recipe: 'To make the bacon extra succulent sizzle for half an hour then add it to the egg to make a great filling breakfast. Enjoy.'
6-year-old Jack Wooley, who attends Belleek Controlled Primary School, produced an extra special picture inspired by Scott’s ‘Still Life with Flowers’. It is a display that would have undoubtedly charmed Scott the teacher and educator, who once spoke of his interest in the primitive drawings of children.
Art connoisseur and collector, Lord Belmore – who, as patron of the Friends of Fermanagh County Museum has played a key role in ensuring it now has one of the most significant collections of Scott’s work – opened the exhibition. He described Scott, whom he knew personally, as a giant at the high table of international artists; a talented, measured and skilled craftsman and an important ambassador for Ireland.
Lord Belmore recalled how, in the late 1930s, Scott and his wife, the artist Mary Lucas, set up an art school in Pont Aven in France. There they became familiar with the work of Bonnard, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse.
During the war years, Scott served in the army, where his skills were put to good use as a cartographer. In 1953, he travelled to North America, to Banpf in Canada and to New York, where he met some of the important American artists of the day including De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Rothko, who was to become a particularly close friend.
'The trip gave him a lot of food for thought,' said Lord Belmore. 'But Scott also realised he should follow his own star and the European school. And did he do this in style! For me Scott and Matisse are the two heroes of 20th century European art.'
Guest of honour at the launch was Scott’s son, Robert, who referred to his father’s humble beginnings in Enniskillen.
'He overcame tremendous obstacles. He was the eldest of 11 children and his father, a sign painter and decorator who had seen his talent and encouraged him greatly, died in a tragic accident while working as a volunteer fireman when William was just 13. A very modest man who did not shout about his art, he just waited for someone to pick up on it. Now his paintings are on display all over the world.'
William Scott’s earliest memories of life in Greenock and Enniskillen were to influence the resolved and simplified style of his mature work. He wrote: 'I was brought up in a grey world, an austere world. The garden I knew was a cemetery and we had no fine furniture. The objects I painted were the symbols of the life I knew best, and the pictures which looked most like mine were painted on walls a thousand years ago.'
In Enniskillen, Scott's first art teacher, Kathleen Bridle (whose portrait of Scott aged 13 is also on display in the museum) described him as a diligent, dedicated and serious young man. For his part, Scott remembered how the experience of sitting for his portrait influenced him.
Bridle also passed on to him her love of French Impressionist painters. When he was just 15, Scott won a scholarship to the College of Art in Belfast, where he was further supported by Enniskillen District Council. From there he went on to the Royal Academy in London.
Bridle was, in fact, the first of four important women in Scott’s life. His wife, Mary Lucas, sacrificed her own artistic ambitions to support his career. Her family owned a paint warehouse, which supplied Scott with natural pigments. At the Hanover Gallery in London, Erica Brausen promoted Scott alongside Francis Bacon and Giacometti.
Dame Lillian Somerville, the British Council commissioner who was hugely influential in promoting British contemporary art abroad, chose Scott to represent Great Britain at the 1958 Venice Biennale, and arranged for him to meet with the other artists including the writer Nabokov and the architect Le Corbusier in Berlin in 1965.
In New York, the driving force behind Scott’s burgeoning career was the art dealer, Martha Jackson. In 1973, she arranged an exhibition to mark his 60th birthday. Writing in the New York Times, Hilton Kramer described Scott as 'an artist of uncommon distinction, not only the best painter of his generation in England but one of the best anywhere'.
Fermanagh-born artist and critic Denise Ferran, who recently returned to Enniskillen to deliver an illustrated talk on Scott’s life and work, summarised his career as a tremendous success story. She defined him as a canny Ulster Scot who developed an unmistakable voice.
Though England was never entirely Scott’s home, he found contentment in his farmhouse in North Somerset, where the countryside reminded him of Northern Ireland. Ferran admires the perfect harmony and confidence of his paintings, their serenity, sensuality and spirituality, and above all Scott's ability to pick up the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
The William Scott Foundation, which was established by his sons Robert and James, has been instrumental in organising events during this centenary year, including a major touring exhibition of works drawn from collections across the UK and Ireland, as well as important loans from public and private collections in Brazil, France, Italy and the USA.
Fermanagh County Museum has offered ‘Still Life with Garlic’. The exhibition opened at Tate St Ives on January 26, 2013, and will move to the Hepworth Wakefield and finally to the Ulster Museum in Belfast, where it will remain from October 25 to February 14, 2014.
Throughout this centenary year, further events at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and the Osborne Samuel Gallery in London will illustrate Scott’s prolific output, including paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs. There will be screenings of the film, Every Picture Tells a Story, by Scott’s Oscar-winning son, James Scott.
A limited edition, four-volume Catalogue Raisonne of William Scott’s work edited by Sarah Whitfield, published by the Scott Foundation and distributed by Thames and Hudson, will also be launched at the Royal Academy in London on May 8. Meantime, the Great Scott visitor’s book at Fermanagh County Museum is open for comments until Full Circle ends on August 31 – a fitting exhibition for a deserving artist.