writings

William Scott: a personal retrospective

A blog post written for The Hepworth Wakefield's blog:

THE DAY I MET ONE OF WILLIAM SCOTT’S STUDENTS

Blog Author: Kate Green, Retail Assistant

Often when I’m in the gallery spaces at The Hepworth Wakefield, I’m reminded of the giants whose footsteps I’m trying to follow onto the roll call of Leeds College of Art and Design alumni. Barbara Hepworth herself once studied there, and so did Henry Moore, whose work is also in the permanent collection here at The Hepworth Wakefield, along with more contemporary examples that have featured in the temporary exhibitions, like Thomas Houseago and Damien Hirst.

For as much as I understand that they too were once at the art school where I’m currently studying, it is hard to imagine them actually being there, actually being just as questioning and unsure about their future and their practice as I am. But this hard-to-grasp concept was taken to a whole new level when I met Janet Ambrose, who during her art school days was not only trying to fill the footsteps of acclaimed former Bath School of Art students, but was being taught by one of the leading figures in British painting – William Scott!

To celebrate her 87th birthday on 23 July, Janet’s son James had arranged a trip to The Hepworth Wakefield to admire some Henry Moore sculptures, and with a little bit of serendipity discovered our summer Scott exhibition celebrating his centenary.

Walking amongst the three galleries where his work is on display, Janet pointed out the VAT 69 bottle in Still Life, 1935 and the mackerel in Mackerel on a Plate, 1951-52, remembering how Scott often presented these to the class as their subject matters for his painting lessons. He was at that time senior painting master at Corsham Court (Bath Academy of Art), a post he took up when he left the army after the Second World War and remained in for a decade.

Janet herself was a nurse during the War and in 1946, a year after armistice, enrolled at a brand new art school and found herself right back at her old nursing station. The convalescent hospital at Corsham Court had been converted into Bath Academy of Art, a unique residential art school that was to replace Bath School of Art.

Some 25 years after her graduation it was in front of one of Scott’s mackerel still-lifes in the Tate where Janet had her last meeting with her former tutor. Admiring the artwork with a friend from her art-school days, from behind them came a voice, “I think you’ve seen that before!” It was Scott, teasing them.

She recalls what he was like in the classroom, walking around their easels, keeping an eye on their progress, fearlessly taking paintbrushes off students to correct them and demonstrate technique.

Painting has always been part of Janet’s life and her style is greatly influenced by Scott, claiming she “works as she was taught”. At the time of her training in the late 1940s, her mentor, Scott, was himself developing his own visual language – his still-lifes of pots and saucepans, eggs, fishes and bottles on a bare kitchen table.

It must have been an exciting time to be both an art student and an artist: communities reclaiming their creative voices in a post-war Britain, the exploration of emotion in artworks, and the development of new abstract ways of interpreting surroundings, memories, and feelings. You’ve only got to visit our Post-War British Sculpture and Painting display in Gallery 3 to understand the innovation of that time. And there was Scott, trailblazing with modern still-life painting and teaching a new generation of artists.

Janet’s own practice focuses on abstract oil paintings of foliage and leaves, but she has recently joined a life drawing class so was delighted to see Scott’s charcoal on paper studies, Seated Woman, 1954 and Seated Girl, 1953-54, on display. Indeed, regular life drawing is her main piece of advice for any aspiring or practicing artist, describing it as the “foundation”.

I felt that Janet had more advice to share, and she did. It turns out that the secret to long-life is art! Even as an octogenarian Janet is still a regular visitor to many art galleries across the country, spends time with fellow artists, attends life-drawing classes, and continues to paint. Her son agrees that her creativity and interest in the arts is to thank for her zest for life.

And what may you ask did Janet get for her 87th birthday? The new William Scott book by Sarah Whitfield of course.

William Scott is on show at The Hepworth Wakefield until September 29 and admission is free.

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