Artwork of the Month - September 2016

Mackerel on a Plate, 1952

Mackerel on a Plate
Oil on canvas
55.9 x 76.2 cm / 22 x 30 in

‘He is able to achieve exciting contrasts both when he uses strong colours and when his pictures are largely in blacks, greys, and whites, with an occasional resonant note… His simplifications are, indeed, of a very interesting kind; he has the power of taking some extremely bleak domestic object and giving it a new and independent life.’ So wrote the critic for the Times in response to Scott’s one-man show held at the Leicester Galleries in February 1951. Scott began working on Mackerel on a Plate later in the year but the critic’s comments remain apposite. The starkness of the restricted palette of the background contrasts exquisitely with the more nuanced tones of the fish; blues, whites and greys are enlivened by the odd sliver of bright yellow. Scott’s appreciation for the tonal paintings of Whistler and William Nicholson is clear.

According to a letter, dated 24 December 1954, to the Tate Gallery from the artist and art dealer Basil Jonzen, the first owner of the work, it was begun in February 1951 and completed in September 1952.

The work was spotted by William Coldstream when it was shown at London’s St George’s Gallery in November–December 1954, and he duly alerted the Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, in a letter dated 2 December: ‘I saw what appears to be a specially good example of William Scott’s work when I went to the Saint George’s Gallery, Cork Street, to-day. I gather the price is 75 gns. I do not know whether we have any money left at the moment, but if we have it might be worth bringing this picture to the attention of the Trustees.’ His advice was heeded and the painting was duly purchased from the St George’s Gallery. An invoice from the gallery to the Tate, dated 5 January 1955, gives the title as Fish on a Plate. The price paid was 78 guineas.