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William Scott Centenary Year 2013


Pippa Jane Wielgos


As the William Scott Foundation celebrates the close of its centenary year, Pippa Jane Wielgos unearths a work by William Scott painted in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1939 whilst living in the South of France between 1938-39. 

The painting of William Scott's wife Mary is one of a series of small paintings of figures, painted from life, influenced by Corot, and Matisse cum Marquet style of 1939-40 when Scott lived at 6 rue Sebastien in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France in 1939. 

The work, known as "Breton Nude", or sometimes referred to as “The Nude in Black Dress”, 1939, (66 x 46 cm) is one of a series of small figure paintings painted direct from life, a lesson taught to Scott as part of his early training at the Royal Academy of Art, which he claimed showed his admiration of the European masters of Derain, Cézanne, Modigliani and Picasso. 

Although the work is small work – because of cost of canvas – it was painted before he opened his painting school in Pont-Aven in Brittany, it is now part of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Featured in the 1972 Tate Gallery retrospective, under the catalogue entry number 55, misappropriated title “Nude in Black Dress” it was later presented to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in July 1977. 

Portraying his wife Mary, it is one of a series of small scale works, which include: "Seated Nude", 1939 from the Eugene Rosenberg collection of 1968, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, Tate Gallery in London, which shows the influence of Corot and Matisse cum Marquet style of 1939-40, Gauguin and followers of the Nabis Group, Vuillard and Bonnard, which the artist claimed to be a reaction against Cubism and his work consequently being aligned to the Euston Road School, emulating Gauguin’s sculptural figures of Tahitian women.

William Scott first began his portraits of single women using his younger sister Mary (née Scott) as a model since she was the only female in the family who would pose for him and it was here that he honed his portrait skills while still at a very young age.

Other works of this period include, "Breton Woman", 1939, 87.6 x 71.1 cm, a portrait of Gauguin's model Marie Henry from Le Pouldu, (Private Collection) a work Scott claimed not being influenced by Gauguin, as "its tonal greys would relate more akin to Whistler concept" and "Girl and Blue Table" or "Girl at Table" 1938, 66 x 81 cm, Leicestershire County Council, which show the influence of Bonnard, "Bonnard manner"; also, "Seated Nude" (1939), Private Collection, 63 x 50.8 cm, a rare figure drawing from Pont-Aven, amongst other works.

The works were also of relatively small scale because Scott had only known French paintings from books and reproductions of a very small scale; the other factor being that canvas was very expensive for his meagre allowance and he was often obliged to paint on the backs of other paintings, which became a problem later when he tried to sell them.

Although Scott was aware of artists and movements of the European modern art, he is said to have painted in an original manner without general adherence to attitudes.

The exposure to Paris, French and European art during 1938-39, and American art and his association with Abstract Expressionism and exhibitions in America between1959-61, exposed him to the literary works, plays, poetry, art criticism, essential operational perspective on European modern and international art; whilst remaining astute of the British, European, American artistic influences and current avant-garde exhibitions in the UK as "International Exhibition of Surrealism", which attracted interest and impacted in Britain in 1936 with exhibitions as "Abstract and Concrete", between 1936-37.

Like many pre-war modern painters, artists and intellectuals who visited the region pre-war, Scott was fully informed and aware of the artists and movements, and painted in an original individualist manner without general adherence to attitudes.

Born on the 15 February 1913 in Greenock, Scotland, he the son of an Irish father and Scottish mother. He was raised in Northern Ireland and the eldest boy from an impoverished family of eleven children. He acquired his early skills from this father who was a sign writer in Northern Ireland, tuition from a local artist known as Kathleen Bridle and then went on to study at the Belfast College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools.

He came to the public’s attention in the England in the Festival of Britain in 1951 and then worked in Penzance becoming associated with the St Ives School of Painters. In 1937, he married Mary Lucas, a fellow student at the Royal Academy Schools and in 1938 travelled and lived in Italy, visiting Florence, Venice and Rome and moved to Pont-Aven, Brittany, where he met Geoffrey Nelson (a former student from the Slade School of Art) at the “Café d'Aven", and they set up the Pont-Aven School of Painting in 1938, initially from a studio at the "Hotel de la Poste" owned by the local innkeeper, Julia Correlleau.

Here Scott taught figure and still-life painting, Mary drawing and sculpture, and Geoffrey Nelson landscape painting. In Pont-Aven, he developed his ideas and decided that he was not a landscapist and focussed on still life, developing his affinity with French European tradition of Chardin and Braque.

After a temporary return to England in 1938, he returned and attended the Salon d'Automne exhibition. On the recommendation of the French painter Maurice Asselin, a former pupil of Walter Sickert, he was elected Sociétaire du Salon d’Automn and two of his paintings were shown at the annual Salon d’Automne exhibition.

On the 16 December 1938, he received a letter from M. Ladaverie, the Secretary General of the society, nominating him as a member of the Sociétaire du Salon d’Automn, where he had two works shown.

In December 1938, he and his wife moved to the South of France, renting a studio in the harbour of St Tropez and then on 1 January 1939 they moved to 6 rue St Sebastien in Cagnes-sur-Mer.

In March 1939, he re-visited Pont-Aven to chase the progress of his school; its supporters including Bertha James, wife of Philip James Keeper of the V&A, other supporters: Augustus E John, Sir Muirhead Bone, Sir Richard Walter Sickert, Albert Rutherson, and the Secretary Mrs A Nelson, Geoffrey’s mother.

In 1939 when they returned, via Paris, to Pont-Aven they met Emile Bernard, a French painter and writer, and a member of the Symbolist and Les Nabis movements, whose theories contributed to the foundations of Cubism and Fauvism and Maurice Denis, a Post Impressionist painter, and who had close associations with Gauguin, Van Gogh and Eugène Boch and Cézanne. After a month visit to Paris with Nelson and his wife, he visited the major galleries studied Impressionist and Later Impressionist works, including Matisse, and changed/embarked direction from landscape painting, to plein-air and to concentrate on painting several pictures using the figure as his primary form, such as "Girl at a Table", ("Figure and Still Life"), the earliest example of this type of work, of 1938 shown in Paris in 1938, and "Nude in Black Dress" ("Breton Nude"), 1939, "Portrait Mary of Scott", 1939 and "Breton Woman",1939, thought to be Gauguin's model.

The association with Paris was important as it exposed him to the literary works, plays, poetry, art criticism, essential to an enhanced perspective on European modern art; whilst retaining interest in the British scene and avant-garde exhibitions such as "International Exhibition of Surrealism", which attracted interest and impacted in Britain in 1936 with exhibitions as "Abstract and Concrete", between 1936-37.

On 29 August 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, they were forced to flee France. They left many of their paintings and possessions in the care of the local innkeeper, Julia Correlleau and returned to Britain before moving to Dublin, Ireland. When they returned to Pont-Aven on 16 September 1946 to recover his pre-war work, he failed to find it, as much had been lost or confiscated by the Germans during the Occupation.

Between1946 until 1956 he was senior lecturer in painting at Bath Academy of Art, established by Lord Methuen (the artist Paul Ayshford) at Corsham Court in Wiltshire, run by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, and taught part-time. Former alumni professors from the unique English progressive educational organisation included UK sculptors as Bernard Meadows and Kenneth Armitage, painters William Sickert, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Adrian Heath, Howard Hodgkin, Anthony Fry, Martin Froy, Gillian Ayres, Peter Potworowski, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Hamilton, Jim Dine, Gillian Ayres, Michael Craig Martin, Jeff Nuttall (the poet and also student), Tom Phillips and Robyn Denny, supported by progressive intellectuals as Sir Herbert Read.

In 1953, he visited America and met the Abstract American Expressionists and the New York-based artists, such as Mark Rothko (American, 1903–1970) and Willem de Kooning (American/Dutch, 1904–1997), and Jackson Pollock. Exhibiting regularly in America, he retained a European modernist course between 1959-61, rather than imitating the American Abstract Expressionists, focusing on exploring abstraction and figuration, of primitive forms and motifs inspired by everyday life, still-life’s, paintings of nudes, domestic scenes in oil and lithographs characterized through the vibrant colours and the angular lines of Cubism, of artists as Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879-1940) and Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893–1983).

In 1985 William Scott was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's Disease. He died on 28 December 1989. During his life, Scot received numerous honorary doctorates, including becoming an elected Royal Academician in 1984 and CBE in 1966. Major retrospectives of his work were held at the Tate Gallery, London in 1972 and in 1986 in Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast. In 1998 a further retrospective was organised by the Irish Museum of Modern Art and in 2013/14, the William Scott Foundation are holding a series of touring centenary exhibitions throughout the UK. Further details: www.williamscott.org/foundation


Image : “Breton Nude” Date painted: 1939 
Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 43.2 cm 
Collection: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery 
© Estate of William Scott 2013

© Pippa Jane Wielgos

Published "The Riviera Reporter", 2013.