Artwork of the Month - June 2015

Table Still Life, 1951

Table Still Life
Oil on canvas
143.3 x 183.8 cm / 56½ x 72¼ in
Signed and dated lower right W SCOTT 51
British Council, London

On 9 June 1953, the first of Scott’s many solo exhibitions at the Hanover Gallery, 32a St George’s Street, London, opened. It was visited by J.J. Sweeney, Director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and by Andrew Ritchie, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Scott’s friend, the painter and critic Patrick Heron, was among those who wrote about the show and concluded his review by saying: ‘William Scott persuades us that nothing is more real than these bare yet sensuous pictures which many will dismiss, even now, as “too abstract”. He is one of our small handful of really significant painters.’ [Patrick Heron, ‘William Scott’, New Statesman and Nation, 20 June 1953]

The majority of the paintings included in the exhibition dated from 1952 and 1953 but Scott did decide to show two earlier ones as well, one of which was Table Still Life (the other was Frying Pan and Eggs, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). That Scott chose – presumably with the approval of Erica Brausen at the Hanover Gallery – Table Still Life to represent his work of 1951 is hardly surprising; it stands as one of the key works of the fifties. Writing in 1963, Ronald Alley recognised Table Still Life as the artist’s ‘most crucial painting to date’, and continued: ‘Though the starting point was still saucepans and a coffee pot on a kitchen table, the real subject of the painting was something else: the table and the objects on it became a single thing with a mysterious, highly charged personality of its own, a personage. Everything was kept very flat and the almost rectangular table top was related to the sides by means of lines which held the design extremely taut. Heavy, dramatic shadows thrust the table slightly forward from the background in stark silhouette. This picture, both in strength of construction and in primitive immediacy, far surpassed anything he had made before.’ [Ronald Alley, William Scott, London, 1963).

Scott also made a point of including Table Still Life in the two illustrated lectures he recorded for the British Council in 1959 and 1972. In the second lecture he described it as a ‘turning point’, and went on to show his audience a slide of the painting explaining the consistency of its style with his earlier work: ‘It’s austere, it’s based on traditional methods of picture making. Everything is kept very flat – that’s the surface of the picture – that’s one of the things I’ve always done. For me the picture plane should never be destroyed.’

The painting was bought from the Hanover Gallery by the British Council in June 1958 on the recommendation of Sir Philip Hendy, Sir Herbert Read and Sir John Rothenstein.