Artwork of the Month - February 2015
Frying Pan and Basket
Oil on canvas
58.4 x 73 cm / 23 x 28¾ in
Royal Academy of Music, London
Dust off your frying pan, as come the middle of February it is pancake time! Shrove Tuesday, the eve of the Lent, is celebrated in various ways around the world but in England it is synonymous with pancakes – making them, eating them, even racing with them. Historically, pancakes were the perfect way of using up the butter and eggs which were to be given up during the fast period of Lent. The roots of pancake races date back to the 15th century. According to legend, a devout woman was cooking pancakes in her kitchen on Shrove Tuesday when she lost track of the time. Hearing the church bell ringing to signal the time had come for the obligatory Shrove Tuesday confession, she raced out of her house and ran to church, still holding her frying pan. Racing whilst holding a William Scott frying pan aloft would be a tough challenge! The frying pan – a motif which Scott would deploy, in many guises, throughout his career – is, in Scott’s paintings, a hefty item; dense, black, an unassailable presence on the picture plane.
Frying Pan and Basket belongs to a series of ‘frying pan’ pictures that Scott developed in the immediate post-war years. Calm and assured, the composition reveals the confidence with which Scott could manipulate his chosen still-life elements of pan, eggs, plate and napkin. It was first shown at his one-man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in October 1948. The art critic for The Times, in his favourable review of the exhibition, singled out the painting for particular praise: ‘in a number of larger and rather more elaborate still life paintings of kitchen utensils, the artist has undoubtedly made a significant advance in the development of his talent; the assurance and firmness of the design, the determined and admirably sustained contrast of colour – to be noticed especially in “Frying Pan and Basket, No. 18” – are most impressive, and Mr Scott certainly has the gift, enjoyed by very few young artists of to-day, of making his distortions look as inevitable as those of the earlier post-impressionists’.
For Scott, in paintings such as this, the frying pan had a special and specific meaning. As he explained to a friend in 1952:
‘About four years ago I painted a picture of a frying pan and a whole napkin. I had been interested in the work of Braque for a long time but I felt that it was dishonest to merely take as some people have done the guitar, the carafe and the French loaf. I felt that in painting my own familiar objects I might imbue them with a conviction characteristic of both myself and my race, if the guitar was to Braque his Madonna the frying pan could be my guitar, black was a colour I was fond of and I possessed at that moment a very black pan. … As my pans were rapidly changing I gave up painting from reality and I found that I had the wonderful sensation of freedom. I could in fact now make any kind of pan, pans with square bottoms and short stubby handles, pans with long graceful handles, with holes at the end, my eggs became more abstract, pure white.’
Over the years, the pan would become more and more abstract in Scott’s paintings. By the 1970s, it is reduced to an oval with a slender, rectangular handle; no longer on the kitchen table, it hangs on the ‘wall’ of the picture’s surface. Although stylistically distant from the pans of the forties, the memory of Braque’s guitar still lingers, as does the feeling of substance, of weight. So, even now, no easier to run with in a pancake race!