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Still Life with White Mug, 1957

Still Life with White Mug illustrates the influence of the French tradition of still life painting on William Scott’s work. The artist spent the years immediately prior to World War Two in Pont-Aven, Brittany, where he founded an art school with his wife Mary. The outbreak of the conflict forced him to return to Britain and to serve for five years in the army. At the end of the war Scott returned to painting. Following in the footsteps of artists he admired such as Chardin, Cézanne and Bonnard, he began to explore the theme of the tabletop still life with pots, pans, bottles, eggs, fish and vegetables arranged in bare kitchen settings.

The choice of still life as a subject allowed Scott to explore the arrangement of objects as metaphorical of human relationships, sometimes with erotic overtones. However, at the beginning of the 1950s the progressive formal simplification of objects and spaces led Scott towards pure abstraction. This was a short-lived phase, which came to an end following a 1953 visit to the US and Canada, where the artist met the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism, Rothko, Pollock, Kline and De Kooning. Although Scott greatly admired their work, he began to feel that he belonged to the European tradition, and soon the monumentality of the Americans and returned to a more representational style and still life.

Evidence of French influences in this painting can be found in the use of a fluid, loaded brush and in the stark contrast of brilliant white against the visceral tones of the background. The voluptuousness of colour also owned to Scott’s ongoing relationship with Cornwall and artists based there, such as Bryan Winter, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Ben Nicholson, whom he frequently met while he was teaching art in Bath (1942-56).

The painting came into Jim Ede’s possession in exchange for a work by Alfred Wallis. Correspondence from early 1962 reveals that the swap was Scott’s suggestion: “I am wondering whether you would care to exchange a painting rather than buy one. […] I have no idea how valuable Wallis is or how we compare in the commercial market, if you are interested in a swap I should like to hear from you.” Scott’s itinerant life – travelling between London, Bristol and Cornwall – meant that he was rather elusive and Ede seems to have missed him in London on several occasions. The transaction was finally completed in December.

Provenance: acquired by H.S. Ede from the artist, 1962

Painting [WS 1]

Displayed

Oil on canvas

400 x 497 mm

About the artist

Scott was born in Greenock, Scotland. After training at the Belfast School of Art, in 1932 he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy. While in the city, he became associated with Abstract Expressionism. After war service he moved to Somerset, but kept in touch with those artists who were developing an abstract style in St. Ives, notably Heron, Lanyon and Hilton. From the mid-1950s he received many large-scale commissions. These, together with influences from North America, further developed the abstract side of his art.