Monday, 10 June 2013

William Scott at The Hepworth

by Jon Cronshaw

To commemorate the centenary of his birth, a fascinating exhibition highlighting the work of pioneering abstract artist William Scott is currently on display at The Hepworth gallery, Wakefield.

Jon Cronshaw spoke to William Scott’s eldest son Robert Scott and the Head of Exhibitions at The Hepworth, Francis Guy, about the artist’s legacy.


On display in The Hepworth, in an archive showcase, is a photograph of an exhibition in New York from 1954 which has the work of Francis Bacon, Barbara Hepworth and William Scott being shown together with equal prominence.




To bring the artist back to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, The Hepworth and The Scott Foundation are using his centenary as an opportunity to showcase some of his best work.

“William Scott, like Barbara Hepworth was one of the pioneers of abstract art in Britain,” explains Francis.

“For us it is really important to bring to the fore someone whose reputation has suffered, but who in the 1950s and 60s was celebrated.

“He had huge reputation in this country, but near the end of his lifetime there was a slackening of interest not only in his work, but also his contemporaries’.

“Of all the British abstract artists, his use of paint is so incredible – it’s so sensuous and lavish – and that’s not something you usually see in British painting.”



Having enrolled at the Belfast School of Art in 1928, Scott was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools, London, just three years later.

But Scott did not have an easy career, and things weren’t helped by the outbreak of war in 1939.

“He was just beginning when war broke out,” Robert says, “artists like Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson were that much older and had their reputations in motion – he had to start all over again.”

During the war, Scott signed up as a member of the Royal Engineers applying his artistic skills as a cartographer.

“He would draw maps from photographs – he would identify landmarks,” Robert explains. “This is a thing that artists are very good at doing – they can abstract the essential information from a photo. At that time they were being used every night by bombers heading to Dresden.”



Many of Scott’s abstract works are drawn from real objects and places, so it is quite easy to see how his skills as a cartographer were carried over into his art.

After the war, Scott began to rebuild his reputation as an artist. He was represented by the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York which represented some of the biggest American abstract painters of the time including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning.

“When I was a boy, I didn’t realise that these people were famous – I just thought they were Dad’s mates. It was only later that I realised that they were artists who were up and coming or already famous,” Robert recalls.

Scott’s abstract work became recognisable through his use of simplified objects that appeared again and again as motifs in his work.

“He was so inspired by Braque and Picasso and their still lives – their use of iconic emblems like the guitar, for example,” explains Francis.

“He has done the same with very simple objects from his childhood – frying pans, saucepans, fruit. Even though his work is abstract, you can still see those objects coming through.”

Perhaps the most iconic of these recurring motifs is the image of a pear which can be seen in works made decades apart.

“We’ve found a pear painting dating back to 1935 – that was the first pear,” Robert says, “then it doesn’t appear until probably the early 1970s where he did an amazing series called ‘The Orchard of Pears’. There were occasional ones in between, but it became very significant at this time.

“He had a pear tree in his garden that he would attend to.”


In the final decade of his life, Scott developed Alzheimer’s disease. Robert explains: “In the last eight or nine years of his life he couldn’t sensibly communicate.

“His mind was still very visual, but he had great difficulty being able to organise paints or organise a canvas – that physical side became impossible.

“He was very frustrated because all this was in him, but it was locked up. He wanted it to come out, but it couldn’t.”

Scott’s legacy goes beyond the art world – all of the royalties his work generates are donated to stem cell research working towards a cure for Alzheimer’s.

William Scott is on display at The Hepworth, Wakefield until September 29.

William Scott is on display at The Hepworth, Wakefield until September 29.

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