William Scott

by Norbert Lynton, Thames & Hudson 2004, £40, ISBN 0-500-976376

Dictionary of Irish Artists: 20th Century

by Theo Snoddy, Merlin publishing, Dublin, 2002, £75, ISBN 1-903582-17-2


Almost at the end of this vast book about William Scott, on page 466, a chronology explains that he was made an “Honorary Doctor of the Royal College of Art” in London in 1975, an “Honorary Doctor of Literature”, Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1976 and an “Honorary Doctor of Literature”, Trinity College, Dublin in 1977. Apart from the recondite nature of these honours when applied to a working painter, the striking thing is the territories involved and the order in which the honours arrived: London, Belfast, Dublin.  Which country ‘owns’ artists like William Scott and should English art historians consider ‘Irish’ artists alongside others?

Scott was born in Scotland in 1913 and died in England in 1989. His father was Irish, his mother Scottish. At the time of his birth there was no such thing as Northern Ireland, the Irish Free State or the Republic of Ireland; instead there was only Ireland, which was part of the United Kingdom. In 1924 the family moved to what was by then Northern Ireland, to his father’s old home town. In 1931 Scott moved to London. The vast majority of his working life was spent in England.  So, was he a Scottish artist, a (Northern) Irish one, or an English one? Perhaps he was just “British”.

When we turn to the Dictionary of Irish Artists, the definitional challenge becomes serious. Who was Irish enough to feature in the book? Not, apparently, Francis Bacon, (born in Dublin and lived mostly in Ireland until he was 16), even though his London studio from Reece Mews, SW7, has now been uncannily recreated in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Jack Yeats1 is always regarded as Irish, but was actually born in London and received all his formal artistic training in London at various art schools. In fact, many of the first-rank of twentieth century “Irish” artists – Yeats, O’Conor2, Leech3, Le Brocquy4, Lavery5, Orpen6 – spent large parts of their career abroad.  (A partial exception was Paul Henry7, most of whose later life was spent in Ireland). As the editor says in his introduction, “the definition of ‘Irish’ remains debatable”.

The premise of these notes is to illustrate that English art historians of what is usually described as twentieth century British art have perpetuated a nonsense by not giving due weight and consideration to “Irish” artists. There are a number whose work and importance should have earned them a notable place amongst the crowd of old favourites of English and Scottish (and even Welsh) artists who feature in those few books which make even a pretence at a synthetic view of the art world in the British Isles in the mid section of the century. In fact, no serious attempt has been made to accord ‘Irish’ artists their proper place amongst British artists and there is little evidence of any understanding amongst English art historians that “Ireland” need not – in art terms – be treated during this period as any different from other parts of the British Isles8.  (It should be said that nothing in this article is intended to comment on whether or not there was a reasonably coherent ‘Irish’ group of painters in, say, the 40’s and 50’s).

As the Dictionary makes so clear, most of the major artists in this period who originated in Ireland at some stage worked and lived in London or Paris (or sometimes both). They simply had to in order to experience the wider European art world and to earn a living. Some came back to stay; many didn’t. Some were integrated into the London artistic milieu of the 1940s and 1950s: Louis Le Brocquy and Patrick Swift9 are good examples. Many “English” artists returned the favour: Freud worked in Dublin from time to time, in the same studio in Hatch Street as Patrick Swift (although Freud is, in any event, German); Edward Burra painted there on a number of occasions (visiting in 1938, 1947, 1948 and 1962) as did John Piper. Colquhoun and Macbryde went in 1946 and lots of their work has Irish subject matter as a result. They went to the South, to Cork and Crosshaven, with the (genuinely) Irish painter, Patrick Hennessy10, although even he moved to Scotland as a child, went to a Scottish art school, worked in London from time to time and spent many years living and working abroad.

One highly significant group of what are loosely these days described as “Northern Irish” artists needs to have their histories threaded into the narrative of British art history. They are Gerard Dillon11, Arthur Armstrong12, George Campbell13, Daniel O’Neill14, Colin Middleton15, Markey Robinson16, John Luke17 and James MacIntyre18. This group19 had a connection with Belfast, but also with Dublin and London. Trying to sell modern art in Belfast in the 40′s was far from easy.20 The time came when Dublin started to get enough galleries which were prepared to try to sell modern native artists – Waddington’s21 in particular and, later, Ritchie Hendriks22 – that Belfast artists could at least hope to sell something in Dublin. But in the end they tended to end up selling in London where there were more galleries to choose from and more people or institutions who might buy the work.23

Gerard Dillon is a fascinating example. He is a major twentieth century British artist, of whom the Irish art establishment is justly proud, yet who is barely covered in histories written by English art historians. For many years he lived in Abbey Road in London and others from the group stayed with him from time to time, sometimes for considerable periods, during the ‘40s and ‘50s. He didn’t, however, integrate with the London art scene of the time and his work in London remained stylistically unaffected, so far as one can tell, although pictures with London subject matters were produced24. In fact, much of his work illustrates a feature which characterises a number of these Belfast artists – the attraction of the West of Ireland, especially at a time when the life there, particularly in the more remote parts, gave artists a glimpse of a different Ireland. Many of them returned to Donegal and Connemara to paint the local unspoilt scenery and life, rather in the way that Sutherland and Craxton were drawn to Pembrokeshire for inspiration (and Craxton, Freud, Uhlman and others to the Scilly Isles)25.

Daniel O’Neill painted in a highly Romantic vein, which wouldn’t have been out of place in an exhibition of the later 1940s of someone like Minton.  His work could certainly be included in any study of Neo-Romanticism.  O’Neill moved from Northern Ireland to London in 1958 and back in 1971.

Le Brocquy has had an astonishing career. A work of his, ‘Travelling Woman with Newspaper’ sold at Sotheby’s for over £1 million in 2000, which puts him into the same bracket as Freud and Hockney for living British artists. His work of the second half of the 1940s, whilst he was living in London, clearly came under exactly the same influence as Colquhoun, Macbryde and Minton – that of the Polish painter, Jankel Adler26. It is incomprehensible why a study of the group would omit him.  He taught at the Central School of Arts in London from 1947-1958.

This is an opportune moment to return to William Scott. Although his later work, being the work for which he is now widely known, shows little sign of it, in fact he too seems to have come under something of the same sort of influence in London in the later 1940s. This may have been through Le Brocquy, with whom he is known to have been friendly, or through Adler, or just from his own understanding of Picasso and Cubism. Whatever their origin, there are a number of pictures of the second half of the ‘40s, which place Scott’s work firmly alongside that of others; specifically, the various pictures he produced of figures with a birdcage chime closely with the well-known ‘Woman with Birdcage’ of Colquhoun of the same date; and the picture of the dead hare of 1949 is exceptionally interesting when compared to similar pictures of dead hares or rabbits by Craxton and Freud of slightly earlier, and by Swift of slightly later.

Scott’s later work did develop differently. No brief summary can do justice either to this splendid book or to the complex thought which underlay Scott’s work. He developed an interest in exquisite positioning in his still life works. He also went through phases where reducing pictures and items within pictures to a form which, taken on its own, was seen as abstract, when seen in the context of other similar pictures could be shown to have originated in Scott’s vision of things. He refined endlessly, varying his gradations from “straight” representations to abstracts. His handling of paint obviously gave him a lot of pleasure, although that is not a feature which even the most lavishly-illustrated book, such as this one, can really make clear.

Later still, the work became classically simplified and, in so doing, perhaps, of less real interest. The reader is able to do what the writer of a book of this kind finds difficult, and that is to develop preferences and weightings between individual works and between works of different periods. The ‘idea of progress’ is not relevant when assessing an artist’s output and nor is there a need to accept that, just because the picture was finished, framed and sold and now appears beautifully reproduced in a book, all works by a particular artist are equally praiseworthy. Pictures ‘fail’ sometimes: they may be important experiments in technique or ideas, but ‘unsuccessful’ pictures. Lynton is a very considerable art historian indeed and he knows this.  He lets in some external criticism by allowing himself to quote the views of critics with regard to important moments in Scott’s career.  For example, he quotes extensively from the very mixed reviews which Scott’s work got at the 1958 Venice Biennale. He also knows that he is effectively the ‘official biographer’ of William Scott, working for many years with the full co-operation of the estate and the artist’s two sons. He therefore describes the work carefully and enthusiastically and, no one could deny this, fully. The resulting book is a glorious monument to an important artist.

Mr Snoddy’s dictionary is also an immensely important book, substantively describing each life, without tendentious comment. Wherever possible he has obtained information direct from the artists or, after their death, from members of their family.  So far as I can tell, there are no anecdotes in this book, so that, for example, when one turns hopefully to the, shall we say, more colourful end of the spectrum in the hope of amusement – take the artist Ralph Cusack, whose eccentricities are so alarmingly described in Anthony Cronin’s ‘Dead as Doornails’ – one finds only the usual helpful, detailed but unaccented entry.

There are six hundred artists covered by this book. English art historians hoping to write accurately of the period need to familiarise themselves with many of the names mentioned if they wish their work to encompass artists who will enrich their studies and who have every right to be considered alongside their English and Scottish (and even Welsh) contemporaries.

[1] Jack Yeats (b. 1871 London, d. 1957 Dublin)

[2] Roderic O’Conor (b. 1860 Co Roscommon, d. 1940 France)

[3] William Leech (b. 1881 Dublin, d. 1968 Surrey)

[4] Louis le Brocquy (b. 1916 Dublin)

[5] Sir John Lavery (b. 1856 Belfast, d. 1941 Co Kilkenny)

[6] Sir William Orpen (b. 1878 Co Dublin, d. 1931 London)

[7] Paul Henry (b. 1876 Belfast, d. 1958 Bray)

[8] ‘British Art since 1900’ by Frances Spalding, 1986 is a short introductory book with no pretensions to scholarly completeness.  Irish artists get little attention.  There is no mention of older artists, born at a time when Ireland was, even politically, part of the United Kingdom, such as Leech or Henry; nor any mention of any of the later artists so worthy of consideration alongside their English contemporaries.  ‘The Century of Change.  British Painting since 1900’ by Richard Shone, 1977, mentions the usual group of ‘Irish’ artists (Lavery, Orpen, Yeats), but not the more recent ones.  The usually magnificent 3 volumes of “Modern English Painters” by John Rothenstein, 1952 etc, permits itself to include whoever Rothenstein was interested in, however far from ‘English’ they were.  So we get Orpen, but not other Irish artists.  The catalogue of that much criticized 1987 exhibition at the Royal Academy, “British Art in the 20th Century”, deserves praise at least for the rigour of its approach to excluding all hints of Irishness.  No hint even of Orpen, Lavery or others make it unusual.  Similarly ruthless, or ignorant, is Margaret Garlake’s “New Art New World.  British Art in Postwar Society”, 1998.  Plenty of William Scott, but not others.  The exhibition “Blast to Frieze.  British Art in the 20th Century”, 2002, follows the same path.  Herbert Read in “Contemporary British Art”, 1951 noted Louis le Brocquy, but no others.  When it suited his arguments he was happy to comment that, for example, Herman (born in Poland) and Uhlman (Germany) were “not in origin British”, but he didn’t feel it necessary to draw this distinction in every case.  So, for example, Freud (Berlin), Auerbach (Berlin), Bacon (Dublin) and Portway (South Africa) get by without comment on their “origin”.

[9] Patrick Swift (b. 1927 Dublin, d. 1983 Portugal)

[10] Patrick Hennessy (b. 1915 Cork, d. 1980 London)

[11] Gerard Dillon (b. 1916 Belfast, d. 1971 Dublin).  He lived in London for some years before the War and then for much of the period 1945-1968.  James White has written his biography, Wolfhound Press, 1994.

[12] Arthur Armstrong (b. 1924 Carrickfergus, d. 1996 Dublin)

[13] George Campbell (b. 1917 Arklow, d. 1979 Dublin)

[14] Daniel O’Neill (b. 1920 Belfast, d. 1974 Belfast)

[15] Colin Middleton (b. 1910 Belfast, d. 1983 Belfast)

[16] Marley Robinson (b. 1918 Belfast, d. 1999 Belfast)

[17] John Luke (b. 1906 Belfast, d. 1975 Belfast)

[18] James MacIntyre (b. 1926 Coleraine).  Has written two books about his artistic life, both published by The Blackstaff Press, Belfast: Three Men on an Island, 1996; and Making My Mark, 2001.

[19] Susan Stairs has written about a number of these artists (including Dillon, Campbell, O’Neill and Robinson) in a book called ‘The Irish Figurists’, 1990, Dublin.

[20] Daniel O’Neill’s experience is illustrative of this and of the benefits in this respect of Dublin and London.  In 1940 he participated in a group show in Belfast and sold none of his 7 pictures.  In 1943 he and Dillon showed jointly in Dublin and 2 of O’Neill’s 7 oils were sold.  By 1946 he was able to have a solo show at the best-known gallery in Dublin for modern art – Victor Waddington’s – and nearly all the works were sold.  By 1947 he was showing in New York; by 1948 in Beverly Hills and London.

[21] According to Brian Fallon in “An Age of Innocence.  Irish Culture 1930-1960″, Dublin 1998, Victor Waddington “became the most successful gallery-owner and art entrepreneur that Dublin – and Ireland – ever knew”.  His Gallery opened in South Anne Street in 1942 and in 1957 he moved to London, where he also became a famous dealer.  The Irish artists he exhibited included Dillon, O’Neill, Paul Henry and Jack Yeats, but he also showed works by Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque, Rouault, Kokoschka, Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth etc.

[22] The story of the Hendriks Gallery is told in a book called “Living with Art: David Hendriks”, 1985.  The Gallery opened under the name The Ritchie Hendriks Gallery on 12th April 1956 and was renamed The David Hendriks Gallery in May 1969.

[23] The reader may have no instinct as to the market stature of these names.  Auction records (as of December 2004) include Dillon (£89,000), Campbell (£50,000), O’Neill (£69,000) ,Middleton (£83,000) and Luke (£441,000).

[24] The Dublin auctioneers, Whyte’s, sold an oil entitled ‘Hampstead Heath’ on 30 November 2004 for €21,000.

[25] Dillon spent some time alone on the tiny island of Inishlacken, off Roundstone in Connemara.  This was lightly inhabited by local people who depended on the sea for their livelihood and produced many striking pictures by him.  In 1951 he was joined on the island by fellow artists George Campbell and James MacIntyre, the latter writing about the experience many years later.  (See note 18).  Yeats sketched in the Aran Islands, his exhibition of 1900 at the Leinster Hall being titled “Sketches of Life in the West of Ireland and elsewhere”.

[26] Jankel Adler (1895-1949).