William Scott Centenary year begins with a major exhibition at Tate St Ives

By Richard Moss | 24 January 2013

Exhibition Preview: William Scott, Tate St Ives, January 26 – May 6 2013

a painting of abstract square and round shapes against a white background
William Scott 1913 – 1989, Still Life with Orange Note 1970© Collection Ulster Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland © The estate of William Scott
The long journey of William Scott (1912 - 1989) from figurative to abstract painting may seem like a familiar story, but this first major exhibition in his busy centenary year explores the many twists and turns of his painting career.

The painter's background, with Scottish and Irish roots, and his many connections with places in England and Europe are equally variegated. He studied at Belfast College of Art between 1928 and 1930 and passed through the Royal Academy schools of painting and sculpture in London between 1931 and 1935, a period when he shared his flat with Dylan Thomas

The lure of Europe then enticed him to Italy and Pont Aven in Brittany where for a time he established an art school, before moving to the home of the Fauvists and Pointillists, St Tropez. Scott returned to Pont Aven at the outbreak of war in 1939 before returning to Somerset by way of Dublin and London.

Like many of his peers in this tumultuous period he developed a style of figurative and landscape painting which was very much in the neo-Romantic tradition. And even through the early 1940s and his service in the Royal Ordnance Corps and Royal Engineers, it is tempting to draw similarities with the young British landscape and figurative artists of the time.

But post war Scott began a series of signature table top still life arrangements that became increasingly abstract and innovative.

Frequent trips to Cornwall at this time led to friendships with many of the St Ives Group of artists, inlcuding Peter Lanyon and Ben Nicholson and by the early 1950s he became progressively more experimental.

One of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century, Scott's story unfolds here across a series of thematic rooms to reveal his “morphological shifts between genres” and his “preoccupation with ‘significant forms’”.

The latter are the familiar harbours, table tops, kitchen utensils and what he described as "the disconcerting contours, the things of life" captured on canvasses that shifted between abstraction and figuration.

Utilising a restrained palette of colours he produced pieces like The Harbour (1952), a famous Cornwall painting and a recent Tate acquisition which goes on display here for the first time.

Gifted by Scott’s sons, Robert and James for the centenary year, it’s a rare example of the artist’s stark black and white period, and one of a group of paintings that marked a significant turning point.

But Scott remained his own man, and from here it was no mere slide into pure abstraction. Even a trip to America and the company of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and the Abstract Expressionists resulted in a return to still life, figurative oils and a realisation that he was part of a European tradition.

Stylish, modern, and always seeking new forms, Scott was a prolific artist, painting over 1,000 works in oil, many of which are now held by public collections throughout the UK.

To see some of these great paintings within the curve of galleries overlooking Porthcurno Beach is going to be one of the early highlights of a great year for painting exhibitions in the UK.  

More pictures:

an abstract painting of a harbour from above
William Scott 1913 – 1989, The Harbour 1952© The estate of William Scott Photo: Colin Mills
a paiting of a table with a table with a plate, knife, cup, pot and bread placed on it
William Scott 1913 – 1989, Still Life with Garlic 1947© Presented to Fermanagh County Museum by the Earl of Belmore © The estate of William Scott 2012
The exhibition travels to:

The Hepworth Wakefield June 15 – September 29 2013

Ulster Museum, Belfast October 25 2013 – February 2 2014

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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