© Estate of William Scott


William Scott (1913 – 1989)


142 X 183 CM
Accession number


The lighter space in this painting’s lower foreground looks like the back of a chair being offered to the viewer. If you took it, it would perhaps be on the understanding that you didn’t move anything: with a subtle, appealing order, the edge of the napkin lines up to the edge of a pan, and, in polite table talk, the left blue container peeks into the darkness to mirror the amount that the grey shape – a cereal box? – leans into the space of the table.

Though the blue bottle, for example, is an abstract shape, its paint reproduces clearly the sensation of looking into dark glass refracting the surrounding gloom and cutlery. There may be hints to this in a talk Scott gave in 1955, describing his technique:

“I want to paint what I see but never immediately; there must be a time lapse, a “waiting time” for the visual experience to become involved with all other experience. That is why I paint from memory.” [1]

These different areas of colour soon appear to be sides, tops or bottoms, flattened for the sake of the overall image, and the idea of “foreground” and “background” starts to become less certain. “That's one of the things I've always done”, Scott explained whilst discussing this painting in 1961:

“For me the picture plane should never be destroyed. All kinds of pictures that I like in the world seem to be flat […] I like the Byzantines, I like the early Italians, and then there are great gaps in my liking of painting until we come to Cezanne. […]The things in the picture now make a complete whole, and the final image is the picture itself, not the things that have been painted.”[2]

This owes something to the example of the “primitive” Cornish painter Alfred Wallis, who sized objects according to how important he – rather than the academic laws of perspective – thought they should be. The two painters often also share a sense of practicality, and this table looks handmade, its roughly-hewn legs spindly but solid enough to suspend it in the black-grey void space.

The space is also uneven and hand-made, scratched and sketched out with the expressive haste of a draughtsman who has decided the fact of the area’s colour, and filled it quickly and impatiently before moving on. But it is because of this scratched surface that the space seems to shift and shimmer slightly, as does remembered, non-painterly darkness.

The painting follows on from the Still Life Scott which represented Scott at the Festival of Britain, and represents a period in which Norbert Lynton saw him

“simplifying his pictorial idiom, reducing the role of colour and emphasizing the function of area division and of paint texture. This brought him close to abstraction in paintings and to complete abstraction in others of 1951-2.”[3]

From the humble background of which he was so proud, it also brought him to the first rank of art-world celebrities. On seeing the next year’s paintings, Lynton reports, the actress Ingrid Bergman exclaimed

“these paintings have a … have a … positively animal vitality!”[4]

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] Scott, The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors [exh. cat.](NY:MOMA, 1955), pp.74-5.
[2] Scott with Martin Attwood, Script for Recorded Illustrated Lecture [Held in British Council Visual Arts Library, 1961].
[3] Norbert Lynton, William Scott (London: Phaidon, 2004), p.464
[4] Lynton, p.204.