William Scott was alone at home when his father returned from the First World War in 1919. His mother, Agnes, was finding seven children and a dog hard to cope with in a small house on her own. She decided that the dog should be put down and had left with him under her arm, most of the children running after her. Only William, who was the third child and the eldest son, remained.
The day after his return, Scott senior went out to look for work. He had been a sign writer and decorator in Agnes's hometown, Greenock, before volunteering for the trenches. Proud of his skills, he showed the six-year-old William the fine brushes he used for sign writing and set the boy painting the spiraling red and white bands on a barber's pole.
Craftsmanship, color, the bonds of domesticity and the love of a fine line: all the characteristics that were present that day stayed with Scott, who would become a singular figure in 20th-century British modernism, renowned in particular for his still lifes.
"I seem to paint the same subject," he said in 1955, when he was already in his 40s. "There is no escaping. One can develop it, but never change it."
The route to simplicity and self-knowledge, though, was neither short nor direct. Scott was born near Glasgow, amid the tenement towers of Greenock, "the busiest Irish town in Scotland". And he was raised amid clusters of small white houses in the windswept Irish town of Enniskillen. As a boy, Scott was taught by Kathleen Brindle, a young prizewinner from London's Royal College of Art. ("I didn't have to teach him very much," she would later say. "I mean, you only said a thing to him and he had it.") Scott quit school at 14, the year after his father died suddenly in a fire, and showed a characteristic steeliness in his determination to become an artist. At 15 he left Enniskillen on a grant to study at Belfast College of Art, and three years later moved to London to enter the Royal Academy Schools. John Russell, the critic, later wrote: "Scott painted, he taught painting and he looked at what others were painting." But like many British painters before him -- from Samuel Peploe to Duncan Grant -- Scott would need the inspirational warmth and color of France before he felt truly liberated as an artist.
In 1938 Scott and his new wife, Mary Lucas, whom he had met at the RA Schools, traveled to Pont-Aven on the Brittany coast. And he was still there, teaching and painting, the following year when Emile Bernard paid a visit. Bernard had lived in the Breton village in the 1880s, and it was there that he met Gauguin and Cézanne, who told him: "Don't be an art critic. Painting is the only salvation."
Before leaving France at the outbreak of the Second World War, Scott had painted an old woman wearing an elaborate Breton lace headdress sitting on a chair. She is thought to be Marie Henry, who had been Gauguin's landlady and his model nearly half a century earlier.
Too short to join the Royal Navy (like his father, Scott was a small, wiry man, no more than five feet four inches tall), he signed up for the Royal Engineers, for which his first job was repainting the walls of Holloway Prison. In his spare time he worked in his studio. At the end of the war he could have taken the easy route, painting landscapes "in a kind of Cézanne manner". But by 1946, when he was demobbed, Scott had realized that his true calling as an artist was, as his biographer, Norbert Lynton, describes it, the "forthright and unhurried characterisation of everyday life".
"I found that fundamentally I don't respond enough to nature to be a landscape painter," Scott said. "I don't respond much to air and sea and the things of nature, and when I approached landscapes it was the man-made thing that attracted me. In any case, I had already discovered that my real love was the still life."
Always open to the work of other painters, Scott traveled to America, where he was the first British artist to meet Jackson Pollock and became a close friend of Mark Rothko, whom he met through the New York dealer Martha Jackson. Although he became known to American collectors through a series of solo exhibitions at her gallery, abstractionism for Scott would remain European abstraction. "There's a whole tradition," he later told John Russell, "from Chardin to Cézanne and Braque and Bonnard which has no part in American painting, and that is the tradition I've always held to."
With its angular white planes and atmosphere of abject vulnerability, Hare and Candle, a painting from 1949/50, derived as much from Cubism as it did from French or Dutch still lifes, proving Scott's point.
Choosing what to paint was as important to him as how to paint it. Russell had this picture in mind when he wrote in The Sunday Times in 1951, "Mr Scott is one of our sharpest and most delicate colourists: his culinary still lifes combine... large areas of pure color with the boldest simplification of the objects portrayed." A fish on a plate, eggs in a bowl placed alongside some lemons, a handful of green beans or a pear or two; these are some of his favorite motifs, and have drawn him a cult following, not just in Ireland, where he is regarded as an Irish native despite his early years in Scotland, or in Japan, where he exhibited three times, but increasingly in Hong Kong and across the rest of Asia.
So when British culture became obsessed with the kitchen sink in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Scott had already developed a kitchen vernacular of his own. Not for him any of the movement's usual social commentary; instead, he used the most common kitchen utensils – a frying pan with a long handle, shallow bowls, flat plates and white Ben Nicholson mugs – to create what Lynton describes as "anthologies of harmonious companionship". The common colors are brown, ochre, orange, a range of yellows from primrose to lemon, his favorite gray and black, and a particularly intense blue that is not often seen in British painting. There is no hierarchy in these pictures, no jostling. Each object has its own space, on a table top or against
a plain-coloured wall. There is no clutter and no mess.
The simplicity of Scott's works is deceptive, as is clear from the two works on offer: Brown Scheme, which dates from 1970, and Still Life on Brown with Beans, which was painted in 1978. There is an ancientness about the pictures Scott painted in this decade, and a palpable sense of silence. In the shouty atmosphere of 1970s American Pop Art, however, they seemed too quiet, too safe. And it is only in recent years that they have become valued for what they are. As John Russell wrote: "The kitchen in his paintings was a free republic in which
no one shape ranked higher than the others and he could make magic with a pear or two and a handful of green beans on a plate. In that free republic, William Scott is to this day our cicerone and our guide. How lucky we were to have him around!"
Fiammetta Rocco is the Arts Editor of The Economist.