Artwork of the Month - December 2014

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1935

The Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on canvas
102.3 x 127.2 cm / 40¼ x 50 in
Private collection

For our December ‘Artwork of the Month’ it seemed fitting to turn to William Scott’s Nativity scene, The Adoration of the Shepherds, painted while he was a student at the Royal Academy Schools in London. It was completed by the summer of 1935 and, soon after, Scott entered it for the RA’s annual Gold Medal prize with every hope that he might win. Although the prize went to another student (John Kingsley Cook) Walter Russell, the Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, liked the painting so much that it was hung in the Academy’s Summer Exhibition the following year.

The account of the shepherds’ visit to the infant Jesus is recounted in Luke’s Gospel; after an angel of the Lord had told them of the good news that the Saviour had been born, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” In Bethlehem, they found Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in the manger. The subject has formed the basis for several works of art over the centuries, with versions executed by artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Mantegna and Caravaggio. Scott, however, chose to depart from the more traditional depictions of the story, setting the scene in a rural village more akin to his home town of Enniskillen than Bethlehem. The decision to present a religious subject in contemporary dress might have been inspired by the work of Stanley Spencer with which Scott was certainly familiar (it is surely relevant that in 1935 Mary – Scott’s future wife – gave him R.H. Wilenski’s book on Spencer as a Christmas present). Indeed, Spencer was one of the painters Scott recalled liking when, as a student in Northern Ireland, he had visited the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery (the museum acquired Spencer’s The Betrayal, 1922–3, in 1929).

Scott was evidently pleased with his own version of the biblical scene as, a few years later, he reworked the composition slightly – most notably removing some of the figures – and used it as the main image on a Christmas card which appeared with the message ‘Christmas and New Year Greetings from William and Mary.’

Supporting image
Christmas card based on The Adoration of the Shepherds