William Scott 1913-1989

Provenance

Acquired directly from the Artist by Eugene and Penelope Rosenberg, March 1956 

Private Collection 

Exhibitions

London, Institute of Contemporary Art Gallery, Architects Choice, 28th October - 29th November 1959, cat. no.35;

Wakefield, Wakefield City Art Gallery, Personal Choice 2 Exhibition, May - June 1961, cat. no.113;

London, Tate, William Scott: Paintings Drawings and Gouaches 1938-1971, 19th April - 29th May 1972, cat. no.40, illustrated.


Literature

Robert Melville, 'Pots and Pans', New Statesman, vol.83, no.2146, 5th May 1972, p.164;

Robert Melville, 'Gallery: Diverse Realities', Architectural Review, vol.CLII, no.905, July 1972, illustrated p. 56;

Sarah Whitfield (ed.), William Scott Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings Vol. 2, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013, cat. no.275, illustrated p.130.

In the summer of 1953, William Scott visited the United States, meeting Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Scott later recalled, “My impression at first was bewilderment, it was not the originality of the work, but it was the scale, audacity and self-confidence – something had happened to painting.” Upon his return to England, and the resumption of his teaching post at Bath Academy of Art, Scott became a medium between America and the next generation of British painters looking to the bravura and dazzling modernity of artists of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism such as Robyn Denny, Howard Hodgkin and Gillian Ayres.

Negotiating between formalism and representation, the expression of the pure medium of paint and the gesture of symbols, between post-war American modernity and the pull of pre-war European modernism, Scott’s work embodied the unique situation of the British abstract artist. Curator and collector Alan Bowness distilled this struggle in Scott’s work into that between “austerity and sensuality.”

The date 1953, inscribed by Scott on ‘Table Still Live’, is evidently incorrect, as is the date of 1954 given by Mary Scott, his wife, in an undated letter to the secretary of the painting’s first owner, Eugene Rosenberg. The correct date, 1955, was recorded by Alan Bowness in the Tate retrospective catalogue: Scott’s works were largely pure abstraction from 1953 until the latter stages of 1955 Red was a colour that previously Scott had reserved chiefly for his paintings of nudes, and it gives the painting a powerful force that is a departure from the more sober and measured still lifes of the previous 12 months. The painting probably dates from the latter part of 1955.

‘Table Still Life’ is formed of Scott’s idiosyncratic personal lexicon of kitchen items – pots, pans, spatula, glasses, eggs, knives – positioned on a simple table. Chris Stephens has likened the importance of the pan to Scott as the violin to Picasso and Braque: it is the pillar of all formal experimentation and expressive meaning. In 1947, Scott stated, “I find beauty in plainness, in a conception which is precise…a simple idea which to the observer in its intensity must inevitably shock and leave a concrete image in the mind”. Colour is strong – reds, oranges and browns combine for an unusual and striking palette – and a depth of tonality is evident through application of paint in loose layers. The handling of the paint is brought to the fore through visible brush strokes that speak to animation and vigour, drawn in all directions, as well as areas that seem to be incised with a knife. Bursts of bright white and thick black outlines punctuate and demarcate the composition.

‘Table Still Life’ was first owned by Eugene Rosenberg, the famed modernist architect of Gatwick Airport, the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and the Manchester Magistrates Court. He was an ardent patron of contemporary British artists including Henry Moore, F.E. McWilliam, Naum Gabo, and Paul Feiler. In a letter dated 16 March 1956 to Rosenberg, Scott wrote, “Dear Eugene / Thanks very much for the cheque for £100. I am very pleased that you are going to have one of my recent pictures and I accept the compliment which the cheque signifies. You know that you can come any time to see what is in my studio but in the meantime I will reserve the picture we discussed. / Yours ever / William.” [W. Scott quoted in S. Whitfield (ed.), William Scott Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings, Vol. II (Thames & Hudson, 2013), p. 130.]. In 1958, Rosenberg’s architectural firm, Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall, commissioned Scott to produce a large mural for the entrance hall of Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, Northern Ireland, the first National Health hospital in Britain. The mural went through many stages and was eventually completed by September 1961, more than 18 months after the hospital opened.

‘Table Still Life’ was included in the major retrospective of Scott’s work held at the Tate in 1972. Robert Melville, writing in the New Statesman at the time of the Tate show, saw in the heavily outlined kitchen utensils, “an air of belligerence as if they might turn on anyone who attempted to handle them…The prevailing colour is a wonderfully refulgent red damped down by smears of brown. [Scott] has not painted a better picture than this, but it’s equaled in power and originality by a few works painted in 1957 and ’58.” [R. Melville, quoted in S. Whitfield (ed.), as above].

Stark yet corporeal, monumental in ambition yet intimate, boldly modernist yet speaking to centuries of tradition, ‘Table Still Life’ is amongst Scott’s most compelling executions of his life-long pursuit to synthesise divergent poles of modernity.