Patrick Scott: The Life & Work of an Innovative Irish Artist

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Patrick Scott was an architect, a designer and an artist. But perhaps most of all, he was an innovator.  One of Ireland’s first abstract artists, he consistently pushed boundaries over the course of his 75-year long career.

Patrick Scott was born in 1921 in Kilbrittain, West Cork, to a farming family who lived beside the sea. This location was crucial in his development as an artist; he later said, “it was the transparent yet solid mass of blue, which stretches on out of sight, that first stirred me to paint.”

During the economic war of the 1930s, Scott’s parents almost went bankrupt but for the support of a wealthy family friend. This same lady, whom Scott called Aunt Linda, paid for him to attend private schools in Dublin. He went to Monkstown Park Preparatory School in 1933, moving on two years later to St Columba’s College.

There were no art classes at St. Columba’s, but Scott and several other boys painted under the guidance of a committed teacher while the other boys were playing sports. This lack of formal training meant that in artistic terms, Scott was largely self-taught. He didn’t learn how to paint with oils, and eventually developed his own unique method of oil painting.

When Scott finished school, the plan was that he would go to London to train as an architect. Fate intervened two days before he was due to leave Ireland, however. Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and Scott’s adventures in London were cancelled.

Student Days in Dublin

Aunt Linda came to the rescue. She provided Scott with enough money to support himself for a number of years and told him to go to Dublin and educate himself. He went to UCD to study architecture, later recalling that it was a decision he felt compelled to make; artist was not an acceptable career choice in 1940s Ireland.

Evening Landscape, 1944, Oil on canvas, 70 x 93 cm, Collection Simon & Sianne Walker.

It was during his student days that Scott became involved with The White Stag Group, a collective of British artists who came to Ireland to escape the war. This group of experimental artists promoted Modernism and the subjective experience.

Modernism was a style of art that developed after the industrial revolution. It reflected a move away from the traditional system whereby works of art were commissioned by wealthy patrons. Bigger cities, faster travel and new ideas – like Freud’s theory of the subconscious – broadened horizons and opened minds. Artists began to experiment with self expression, independently of patrons who had previously dictated  artistic trends.

In 1940, Scott stumbled upon an exhibition in Dublin by the White Stag Group. He later said, “when I met the White Stag Group, I knew that I wanted to find something in artistic terms, but I was not sure what. I was delighted with what they gave me.” He became involved with the group, who were an important influence in his early career, introducing him to abstract art.

Modernism was slow to take off in Ireland. In today’s Ireland, we can look at a Patrick Scott painting and  appreciate its simple beauty. But to really appreciate Scott as an innovator, we must try to place ourselves in the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s.

Culture Clash

It was a conservative time in Ireland. Memories of the struggle for independence and the civil war were still fresh, plus the Catholic Church held a firm grip over its flock. In such a society, even cultural expression wasn’t free; it tapped into a traditional and very Irish sense of identity. There was little appreciation for a more contemporary style.

Scott’s early works, produced during this time, showcase his developing style. His paintings didn’t reproduce scenes precisely as they appeared; instead they reflected his own interpretation of the world.  For instance, one of his earliest works, Evening Landscape, takes a bird’s eye view with just a simple line for the horizon. Interestingly, Scott’s lifelong interest in the circle is seen even in this early piece.

Wires of the Lagoon, 1957, Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76 cm, Private Collection

During the 1950s, Scott’s style matured. We can see his passion for patterns in Wet Day and the influence of his architectural training in Wires of the Lagoon. His simple style gave viewers space to make their own interpretations. However, his work was not well understood in 1950s Ireland – one newspaper described his Deserted Racecourse piece as “an assembly of vertical and horizontal lines”.

Recognition may have been lacking at home, but things were different on the international stage. Scott was nominated for the Guggenheim International Award in 1958. This led to the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York purchasing Scott’s Woman Carrying Grasses.

Even this was not enough to impress the home crowd, however. That same year, the Keeper of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery recommended that the museum purchase a similar piece called Girl Carrying Grasses. Controversy ensued when Belfast city councillors said that to do so would be “robbing the ratepayers” and in the end, the painting was not purchased.

Girl Carrying Grasses, 1958, Oil on canvas, 183 x 122 cm, Private Collection.

Recognition Grows

During the 1950s, Scott also worked as an architect and designer in the practice of Michael Scott. Michael (no relation) was a prominent Dublin architect who had won contracts to design buildings for CIÉ. Patrick Scott’s most significant architectural contribution was his involvement in the design of the Busáras building.

In 1953 Michael Scott established Signa Design Consultancy to offer clients access to a range of design expertise. Patrick Scott was part of this venture, designing posters, record sleeves, book jackets, Christmas  cards, Grafton Street’s Christmas decorations and even the colour scheme for CIÉ’s trains. The iconic black, orange and white design was inspired by the colour of Scott’s cat, Miss Mouse.

At the 1960 Guggenheim Awards, Scott won the national prize for Ireland with Bog Grasses. It was this award that allowed him to give up his job as an architect and designer. He bought a house in Ballsbridge, Dublin and became a full-time artist.

Thankfully, the 1960s saw Scott finally earn some recognition at home. This happened in tandem with Ireland’s transition from an inward-looking country to a nation seeking to take its place in the world. Against this backdrop, Scott’s first solo Irish exhibition at Dublin’s Dawson Gallery in 1961 was well received.

Big Solar Device (Large Solar Device), 1964, Tempera on unprimed canvas, 234 x 153 cm, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.

Open to Interpretation

During the early 1960s, Scott introduced a series of paintings which he called Device. These were inspired by his dismay at the testing of atomic bombs, which were known as devices. Then, in 1964, Scott introduced the work that he is best known for: the first in his Goldpainting series.

The initial inspiration for the these paintings came from a book of gold leaf that had been left over from a design job, but Scott had to find a suitable method of applying it to the canvas. A colleague suggested using acrylic paints rather than oil, and Scott found this effective. He applied layers of gold paint to build up the effect he wanted.

Scott’s Goldpainting series are sometimes seen in terms of his interest in Zen, with their calm and uncluttered feel. We’ll never know for sure though, because he was famously reluctant to explain the meaning behind his work and had an intolerance for art jargon. In an interview given to the Irish Times a year  before his death, he responded to questions as to why gold leaf appealed to him with the line, “I liked the look of it… I’m very bad at talking about all that.”

Involving the Spectator

This reluctance to explain his work could perhaps be seen as an attempt by Scott to promote the spectator’s role as participant and interpreter. He further promoted the spectator’s role when he introduced paintings composed across four separate canvasses so that the owner could rearrange them.

This idea of the spectator as a participant in the artwork, completely new to Ireland at the time, was another example of Scott’s knack for innovation. Some commentators saw this move as an early example of interactive art – a movement, popular in recent years, where spectators become part of the artwork by  walking around the installation.

Scott has given some small explanations in his time, however. Regarding his love of the circle, he said that if he walks into an empty room in a strange place, he feels an urge to draw a circle on the wall, and that somehow transforms the space. In his studio, he pinned up a note that read “the circle is a symbol of fulfilment.”

Gold Painting 57, 1968, Gold leaf and tempera on unprimed canvas, 122 x 122 cm, Collection Christopher Fitzsimon

Later Work

Scott went on to produce further series of paintings, including Pyre and Object. But he also had his fingers in other pies. From 1969 until 1987, he sat on the board of the Kilkenny Design Workshops, which had been opened in 1965 with the aim of improving the standard of design in Ireland. As part of his work for Kilkenny Design, Scott went on talent hunting expeditions, designed a series of limited-edition silk screen prints and produced a series of Rainbow Rugs.

His interest in Zen culture and philosophy eventually led him to visit the Far East in the 1980s. He subsequently produced landscape paintings inspired by the trip, such as Fuji Moonlight and the beautiful Zen Garden, Japan.

Scott continued to push the boundaries of convention, even in his later years. For example, at a 2002 exhibition of his work by the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, he suggested that painting the walls would make the displays more interesting. The gallery agreed and he had the walls painted in “blue, green and bullock’s blood”.

In 2007, Scott was elected a Saoi (sage) of Aosdána, an organisation representing creative artists in Ireland. In order to receive this great honour, artists must be elected by their peers within Aosdána for their singular and sustained distinction in the arts.

Scott continued to work right up to his death at the grand old age of 93 in 2014. He died on the eve of the  opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The museum is home to a collection of Scott’s paintings.

Many thanks to Eric Pearce and the Irish Museum of Modern Art for permission to use the images in this article. All images are © the artist’s estate.

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