The Hepworth Wakefield and Jerwood Hastings celebrate the genius of William Scott

By Richard Moss | 21 June 2013

William Scott Centenary: William Scott: Divided Figure at The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings until July 10 2013; William Scott Centenary Exhibition, The Hepworth Wakefield, until September 29 2013

an abstract figurative painting of a recling nude
William Scott Reclining Red Nude (1956)© 2013 the Estate of William Scott
If there is one thing we have learned from the centenary year of painter William Scott (1913-1989), it’s how the Scottish-Irish artist really was a massive figure in post war British abstract art.

Scott’s emergence from what now seems like an inexplicable period of obscurity has come courtesy of a welcome series of exhibitions, an illuminating film made by his son James, an overdue series of fine monographs and a catalogue raisonné of oil paintings. He may be absent from the much debated Tate re-hang, but we are now thinking much more about his place in the history of British painting.

Scott blurred the boundaries between still life, landscape and figuration – probably more so than any other figure in 20th century British art and at The Jerwood, in Hastings, part of this fascinating story is explored.

William Scott: Divided Figure ostensibly explores Scott the figurative and still life painter, and is a chance to see some rarely seen portraits and sketches taken from a nineteen-year period between 1954 and 1973.

Some of them have emerged from private collections for the first time, others from the Scott Archive and, in the case of the minimal later painting A Girl Surveyed, from a studio where it was discovered rolled up and forgotten.  

The Jerwood’s spacious main gallery is an apposite setting for these bold works, and in some of them, including Red Figure (1954), Standing Nude (1956) and Figure: Red and Black (1954) interesting interconnections and contexts emerge that make it easy to place him within the art of the post war period.

Scott described his interests at this time as “primitive sex forms, the sensual and the erotic, the disconcerting contours, the things of life.” And there is certainly a raw power to these works which seem to open a forgotten window on British abstraction - and offer tangible parallels to Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Francis Bacon.

It makes sense - Scott began as a sculptor and exhibited with these artists but within his striking nudes lurk paradoxical suggestions and hints of landscapes, objects and other Scott tropes. A room of charcoal figures - all dating from 1956 - show how he also flitted in and out of abstraction.

A Kenneth Armitage sculpture, Standing Figure, even introduces a contemporary who mirrored Scott’s fusing of styles and some of his interests including Egyptian art. It’s as though a Scott figure had lifted itself from a painting and morphed itself into bronze.

But by the time you encounter Figure Expanded (1964), any sense of recognisable figurative painting has been turned on its head and transformed into a series of constituent elements.

an abstract panting of strips, sqaures and spheres of colour on a white background
William Scott, [Figure Expanded] (1964)© 2013 Estate of William Scott
This sense of morphology is explored in depth at The Hepworth Wakefield, where 50-odd works really get to the heart of Scott’s journey and vision.  

Large and small-scale paintings, drawings and archives build on the concept conceived by Chris Stevens for the first Tate St Ives leg of this evolving show to reveal how Scott’s objects, landscapes and figurative studies evolved.

“In his early years in Ireland Scott was one of 11 children and we think his upbringing was quite hard, and these simple objects refer back to that period,” says Curator Frances Guy, who has developed the show for the Hepworth.

“The simple pots and pans, the fish in the frying pan, the eggs - objects that he developed into pure abstract forms as he progressed through his career - they are never far away, they are always quite near.”

A room of early pre-war works reveals the influence of Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis’ naïve and flattened approach to landscape. And in common with his contemporaries the early portraits show the effect of the celebrated London exhibitions of Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

His time in Pont Aven in Brittany, where with his wife he set up an art school before war saw them return to Ireland and then England, also saw what Guy describes as a “kind of Gothic Modernism” play across the Scott palette.

But looking at the paintings of the 1950s the parallels with the abstract sculpture of the period – and indeed the forms of Barbara Hepworth –  once again seem explicit. Yet there is a paradoxical tension between sparseness and complexity that really makes them unlike anything produced by his peers – whatever the medium.

Scott certainly had a way of making beautiful abstract poetry out of pots and pans. But when you actually encounter his landscapes, still lifes and nudes in the same room, the apparent boundaries between them melts away.  

As he said in 1955, “I seem to paint the same subject, whether it is still life, figure or landscape. There is no escaping, one can develop it but never change it.”

“It is something that is absolutely unique to Scott,” says Guy, “he developed a very individual language and assimilated so many influences.

“At the same time he encountered Abstract Expressionism in America he was also inspired by the cave paintings in Lascaux, by visits to the British Museum, by Egyptian Hieroglyphs and all sorts of things.”

For fans of Scott, the Hepworth’s central gallery will be a dream; a dizzying variation of scale, colour and what Guy eloquently describes as “the duality between genre and form”.

Landscapes become table tops; hillsides become pots and pans, horizons peek over the arched curves of nudes and fields are flattened to become harbours or headlands. “There’s a wonderful correspondence in his work between all of the things that interested him,” says Guy.

Stare at The Harbour (1952), a black and white oil recently acquired by Tate, for long enough and it soon becomes evdent that it could be a table; or figure, or even a grid of fields. It’s experimentation that seems to go beyond the subject matter.

a photo of the interior of a gallery with paintings on the wall
© Photo: Gabriel Szabo / Guzeliam Image courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield
In the later paintings, such as White Sand and Ochre, the Scott palette becomes simpler. From the 1960s, he developed an interest in primitive mark making, influenced by cave painting and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This preceded a period of symmetrical compositions – notably in the Berlin Blues series produced as part of a Ford Foundation residency in Berlin.

The exhibition also reveals a deep connection with art in Huddersfield. The painting, Three Pears, Pan, Plate and Knife (1955) has emerged from the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection and is displayed here for the first time.

An archive of photos, correspondence, cuttings and programmes revisits former Director of Huddersfield Art Gallery Helen Kapp’s 1956 abstract art exhibition, Vision and Reality.

Martha Jackson’s 1954 New York exhibition, which featured Scott, Barbara Hepworth and Francis Bacon, is also explored through some fascinating correspondence, but of course it’s the great paintings that are the delight. And with the beautifully presented Barbara Hepworth collection just a stride away, they seem perfectly at home.

Now this centenary year has reminded us of his importance, let's hope William Scott doesn’t slide back into inexplicable obscurity.

  • The William Scott centenary exhibition tours to Ulster Museum, Belfast where a full survey exhibition runs from October 25 until February 14 2014.
a still life of utensils, a frying pan and a candle on a table
William Scott, Still Life with Candlestick (1949–50). Private Collection© 2013 estate of William Scott

a still life with a plate and three pears
William Scott, Three Pears, Pan, Plate and Knife (1955)© Wakefield Permanent Art Collection © 2013 estate of William Scott

an abstract painting of spherical shapes and marks on a white background
William Scott, White, Sand and Ochre (1960–1). Tate© Tate © 2013 estate of William Scott

a detail of a black and white abstract painting with black lines
William Scott, The Harbour (1952). Tate© 2013 Estate of William Scott

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