William Scott: a life study

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William Scott, currently the subject of a retrospective show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, was one of the leading abstract painters of his generation. He played a major role in bringing British painting back into the mainstream after the isolation of the Second World War and was the first British painter to make contact with Pollock, Rothko and Kline in New York in the 1950s. Much of his painting was done in his studio in Somerset, where he taught at the Bath Acedemy of Art from 1946 to 1956. He liked to think of himself as belonging to a "west country school" that included the abstract painters of St Ives. Here, Scott's oldest surviving friend, Alfred Janes, one of the group of artists, musicians and writers (including Dylan Thomas) who grew up together in Swansea in the pre-War years, recalls their friendship, formed while they were students at the Royal Academy. Below, Richard Ingleby reviews the exhibition

About 10 years ago William Scott telephoned me to say that the BBC were about to show a film of his early life in Enniskillen made by his son James. I found it intensely moving. The landscape in which he lived, the tragic death of his father (he had fallen fatally attempting to rescue the victim of a fire) and the influence of his first very enlightened teacher all seemed to have contributed to the Scott I knew.

The film ended where and when we first met - our arrival at the Royal Academy Schools in September 1931. He came with his close friend William Tocher, a fellow student at Belfast. I came from Swansea. Three provincials in in a new world, we became friends immediately.

Tocher and Scott (surnames were almost invariably used) were then in the Sculpture School and I was in Painting but we met in the famous semi- circular drawing studio.

I was concerned then to draw as faithfully as possible what I saw, but Scott seemed to be after something else. I can only describe it (and I remember clearly the first life drawing of his that I saw) as a kind of essence, stripped entirely of inessential detail and, by virtue of its strangely esoteric quality, difficult to put into words.

It was a characteristic that I think clearly marked his work throughout; all his drawings, the early delightful "other world" still lives of fish, eggs and utensils, his progress towards abstraction and the final large paintings where austerity, essence, geometry and evocation come together. I know of no instance where the work of an artist seems to reflect more his personality.

We were lucky. Our principal drawing lecturer at the Royal Academy was Tom Honnington, an artist of great stature possessing all the patience and skill that are the necessary gifts of a great teacher.

We were surrounded by rare beings. In the "out of the way" rooms, Peter Scott was even then constructing models of birds and Mervyn Peake could transform a perfectly normal model in the life class into a character from Gormenghast.

Outside it was bleaker. It was 1931; soon after the great depression, money was scarce. That we were all skint goes without saying.

After a year or so of digs we began to stretch our wings; William and I moved to an apartment in a house in St John's Wood with Scott Med - a gentle giant from Canada, and Laurence Broadhouse (who later became a BBC designer). Broadhouse in a memoir recalls when Scott, having come by bus from St John's Wood, carried an iron saucepan of stew down Bond St to be heated up in the collegeCommon room, a gift from our landlady; a sign of the times.

Shortly afterwards, William and I moved, with Bernard Hailstone (who became a noted portrait painter and President of that society) into an unfurnished flat in Redcliffe Road. It was some time before we collected some furniture and quite a while before we were to be seen carrying mattresses, picked up at knock-down sales, one after the other, down Fulham Road.

It was certainly one of the most enjoyable and exciting periods of my life. There was little social activity at the Academy - there were just not the facilities - we simply spent our working day there and went back to Chelsea.

Fortunately, we had many links with the Royal College of Art - several fellow students from Swansea and Belfast were there and gradually our leisure mingled with theirs. The Friday night "hops" there were the high spot of the week and only the most serious interruption would keep us away. It was also an intensely formative time, one of endless discussion.

We were all immensely stimulated by the great artists of the period, from Picasso to Klee, from Gabo to Epstein.

By a stroke of luck, a fellow student at the Royal Academy, apparently quite well to do, had taken the flat above us, and soon preferred our unfurnished but happy shambles to his well-appointed isolation.

He joined us and brought with him a few luxuries, above all a collection of records that added enormously to our enjoyment: Schnabel playing Beethoven piano concertos; Mozart Symphonies; that wonderful Bach double violin concerto and perhaps for us, even more revelatory, a broad introduction to the later composers Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

About that time two incidents occurred that I shall never forget. Our friend Tocher had heard that it was possible to hire a boat at Richmond or Putney (or somewhere nearby) and, with the aid of the strong tidal current, row to Limehouse - then catch the returning tide for the journey back.

Tocher, William and I with one other (I forget whom) decided to make the trip. We made fair time to a point not far from Tower Bridge, swept along at a cracking pace. Unfortunately, at one point we were confronted by a series of barges moored side by side.

We could not change direction quickly enough and were swept against them. The only solution was to push ourselves along to the outermost boat but we could only do this by standing and pushing above our heads. But the more we pushed the more we rocked and it was only after what seemed an interminable struggle that we reached the last barge - exhausted by a combination of effort, panic and hysterical laughter.

Needless to say our timing was of similar standard to our navigation. We reached Limehouse but somehow missed the return tide. Eventually we reached our point of departure in the early hours of the following day to greetings from the boat hirer entirely lacking in warmth.

We traipsed back to Chelsea, hungry, cold, and with our enthusiasm for boating sadly diminished.

The other occasion was as triumphant as the excursion was disastrous. Someone had heard that the large emergency exit doors of the Albert Hall were not locked during events but held shut by powerful springs allowing exit but not entry.

There was nothing to grip on the outside but, the report maintained, a sufficiency of fingers appropriately applied could do the trick.

This seemed feasible if somewhat nefarious and half a dozen of us, including William, decided to test the theory by attending the Chelsea Arts Ball by this means - having no other.

It was a case where experiment and practice on the spot were ill-advised so rehearsals were carried out on less distinguished doors. They indicated a reasonable chance of success and so it proved.

I was the tallest of the team, Scott was the shortest. We took up appropriate positions with the other four ranged in between and, to our joy,persuaded the heavy door to give way. We pelted up the staircase and immediately mingled with the crowd. It was a glorious night but I have a strong feeling that, for all of us, the climax was really at the beginning rather than at the end.

Towards the end of that period, I found the conflict between our training at the Royal Academy, excellent though it was, and the exhibitions of contemporary work that surrounded us so disturbing that I left the Academy.

I stayed on with the others for a short period painting in the flat - something of a factotum - preparing our evening meals of vegetable stews etc and wondering what on earth to do next. One was now highly trained, but not to earn one's living. I returned to Swansea for a summer break and then took a flat in Redcliffe St in Chelsea where I was joined by Dylan Thomas whom I had met with my then "old" friend Daniel Jones, the composer.

Scott lived nearby and we all spent much time together. He and Dylan were soon firm friends. In later years, I realised how much that friendship had meant to him, but I did not realise, until Scott's memorial service at St James' Church when his sons James and Robert read two of his poems, that Scott had written poetry himself.

The new flat was daunting. Once more, just bare boards and a few boxes, but help was at hand. Pamela Hansford Johnson (later to become engaged to Dylan) and her mother had furniture in store, some of which they kindly lent us. We were able at last to all sit down at the same time.

Dylan liked neither the discomfort nor the cold; he wrote much of "The Nap of Love" sitting up in bed fully dressed in pork pie hat and large checked overcoat, fags and beer to hand. The artist Mervyn Levy - we had been at the Swansea School of Art together - was now at the Royal College of Art along with other Swansea friends and he soon joined us. This menage a trois became something of an asylum for deranged poets and impecunious painters. One visitor whom I shall never forget was a young boxer whom Dylan had rescued from the aftermath of a clash between Fascists and Communist supporters at what, I seem to remember, became known as the "Battle of Olympia". He had been beaten up and took several weeks to recover.

The years 1934 and 1935 were a period of great tension, already foreshadowing the war. On one occasion, Mervyn, William and another close friend, the painter Will Evans - who had also studied at the Royal Academy - and I had a most unpleasant first-hand experience.

We were returning at night by tube from the West End to Earl's Court when a group of black-shirted youths began to taunt Mervyn, who enjoyed dressing in somewhat bizarre fashion (trousers slashed to the knee and one half of his face clean shaven, the other half bearded).

At the entrance to the tube station they met with a group of some 30 or 40 others - obviously on their way to a rally. They immediately surrounded us, jostling and threatening. Fortunately, our propensity for "endless discussion" already referred to came to our aid; it took what seemed an age to convince them that we were not "Trotsky's best friends"! Mollified, eventually they went their way. That kind of confrontation was sadly all- too frequent at the time.

At the next move - to Coleherne Road - we joined up with Scott once more. It was 1934. Scott continued at the Royal Academy Schools and I think it must have been about that time that he decided to switch from sculpture to the painting school.

A fortunate choice, I believe, because he was to make to British painting a uniquely personal contribution, unique for the quality of his vision and, perhaps above all, for its absolute honesty.

Once again, I returned to Swansea for the summer months, but remained there until the war. Dylan lived half in Swansea and half in London.

It was from Dylan that I had news of Scott. We met once more in Cornwall in 1936 where he married Mary Lucas, a fellow sculpture student. Subsequently, they lived in Italy and France and it was not until after the war that we resumed contact. His career from that time is well documented.

William Scott began his artistic training as a sculptor but, in 1934, after three years at the Royal Academy schools in London, he switched to painting with the now famous grumble that he couldn't stack sculptures under his bed. Not, as it turned out, that he ever had to hide his paintings away: in a career that spanned some 50 years, his work was exhibited widely and regularly in the US and Germany as well as here, from his first one- man show in 1942 right up until his death in 1989.

A mini retrospective of 18 paintings from 1946 to 1983 at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London shows something of the consistency of Scott's talents over the years and his life-long devotion to the still life as subject. The work moves through several recognisable phases: from the carefully constructed figurative pictures of the late 1940s; into various degrees of object-based abstraction; to an even simpler sort of still life painting in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The earliest period (the worst served by the current exhibition) was one of the best. "I find beauty in plainness," he said in 1947, "in a conception that is precise"; a precision that led to pictures that work like a set of scales, finely judged, with each of the ingredients balancing the whole.

In 1946 Scott was appointed Head of Painting at Bath Academy of Art, based at Corsham, and began to spend his summers in Cornwall where he met Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Bryan Wynter, all of whom soon joined his staff. They introduced him to Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton and, for a decade, currents flowed back and forth between Corsham and St Ives.

In this company, Scott began to further simplify his forms and colours to the point when he was left with combinations of black lines on creamy white fields. They are the most restrained and subtle pictures of his career. Sometimes suggesting a table top, or a harbour, a landscape, or a figure or, as with Figure into Landscape, one of the best works in the Jacobson show, a transformation from one to the other. 1953, the year that Scott painted Figure into Landscape, was also the year that he visited the US and encountered Abstract Expressionism at first hand. He was one of the first British painters to grasp what it was all about and, rarer still for an English painter in the 1950s, he found an audience there for his own work, especially in New York where meetings with Pollock, Kline and de Kooning left him impressed but not seduced: "My impression at first was bewilderment. It was not the originality of the works, but the scale, audacity and self-confidence." Rothko, in particular, appealed to him in peculiarly English terms: "A synthesis of Turner and Nicholson," as he put it.

Scott always saw his own work as wedded to a European, particularly French, tradition. His interest in still life, he once said, stemmed from "a desire to look at Cezanne through the eyes of Chardin", but his US experiences gave him the confidence to paint bigger; often with striking results (witness White and Ochre, 1960 and the later New Still Life Study, 1983, both in the current show). To my eye, however, the three strongest pictures are also the smallest. Figure into Landscape being one; a white and orange still life of pots and pans from 1958 being another; and, smallest of all, Quiet River, 1962 - a thin arc of blue squeezed from the tube across thick sweeps of creamy paint laid on with a knife.

In late 1960s and early 1970s, Scott turned again to abstraction, but of a more austere, more minimal nature than before, which in time led to a softer, simplified return to the still life theme. These pictures are often more complex than they first seem, marked by subtle differentiations of colour and tone, but all but the best of them lack the precision that gave his earlier work its edge. He also, occasionally, turned to the figure, remembering his wife Mary as his model in the 1940s. One such painting, Reclining Nude Orange Pillow, 1980-82, is the unhappy note on which the Jacobson exhibition ends. It is a terrible picture that mars an otherwise excellent selection.

The Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 14a Clifford Street, London W1 (0171-495 8575). To 26 Apr. Smaller selection also on show at Jonathan Clark & Co, 18 Park Walk, SW10 (0171-351 3555)