William Scott was born in Greenock in 1913. In 1924, his family moved to his father’s home town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland where he later enrolled at the Belfast School of Art, moving to London three years later to take up a place at the Royal Academy Schools, initially in the sculpture department, later changing to painting.
In 1951, he was one of sixty artists invited by the Arts Council to exhibit as part of the celebrations marking the Festival of Britain. Around this time, his work moved closer to non-figuration and his first one-man show at the Hanover Gallery in London, which opened in June 1953, included a number of virtually abstract paintings.
With funds for the exhibition, he took an extended visit to North America which resulted in friendships with New York based artists including Mark Rothko and William de Kooning. One of the first British artists to be aware of Abstract Expressionism, the work he saw in America made Scott aware of how much his painting was, and would continue to be, tied to a European artistic tradition. Indeed throughout the 1960s his work was exhibited across Europe and, recognising his important place in contemporary art, the Tate Gallery in London held a major retrospective of over 125 paintings in 1972.
Throughout his career, the themes of still-life, landscape and the female nude recur in Scott’s work. Although there are phases where his paintings could be called abstract, more often they explore the space between abstraction and figuration. Scott said, “I am an abstract artist in the sense that I abstract. I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and the erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life.”
In 1959, Scott was commissioned to paint a 45-foot-long mural for the interior of Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry, the first new hospital to be built in Britain following the introduction of the National Health Service.hospital. The mural is entitled The Four Seasons.
Scott base the mural on the idea of Irish history, but approached it through his research into ancient Celtic art rather than through pictorial history books. The dozens of notes and sketches he made for the mural show his ideas progressing from the imagery of ancient Ireland, such as crosses, rounded towers and intricate symbolic patterns, to the elemental forces of earth, air, water and fire. Right from the beginning, the architect had agreed that the mural should be abstract, but Scott wanted the abstract to be informed not by any literal meaning,
A commission to design a textile for the hospital wards followed. His research into ancient crosses led Scott to base this on the round-headed crosses of Whithorn. The design for the Whithorn textile was screen-printed onto linen by Edinburgh Weavers, who were known for producing cutting-edge designs by leading artists.
Scott’s original textile design was bought in 2006 for £5,000 from the London art collector Francesca Galloway by Fermanagh District Council with a contribution from The Art Fund with the assistance of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The design clearly echoes the colours of stone and shape of the early circular headed crosses of Whithorn.
The Whithorn textile can be seen hanging on in the left of this photograph of the exhibition of Edinburgh Weavers and contemporary design held by the Scottish Council of Industrial Design in Glasow in 1961.
First published January 2011