Scott, William George (1913–89), painter, was born 15 February 1913 in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the eldest son of Irish-born William John Scott, house decorator and sign-painter, and Agnes Scott of Scottish descent. His early childhood was spent in Scotland but in 1924 the family moved to his father's native town, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. He was educated at the model school and with his father's encouragement attended art classes at night with tuition from Kathleen Bridle, an enlightened teacher who introduced him to the work of artists of the French school including Cézanne, Picasso, Bonnard and Matisse. He continued his studies at the Belfast College of Art in 1928 and at the Royal Academy Schools in London (1931–5). He had very little money, and shared accommodation in Earl's Court with the poet Dylan Thomas and the artist Fred Janes, who were similarly struggling to make ends meet. Scott's circumstances changed when he met Mary Lucas, a talented sculptor and fellow student at the academy; she was from a wealthy background. They lived together for a time before marrying in 1937. They shared a lifelong passion for art, and Scott sought and valued her criticism of his work throughout his career.
After a short stay in Cornwall and Italy in 1936–7, the Scotts moved to the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven, Brittany, in 1938, and established with Geoffrey Nelson the Pont-Aven school of painting. Mary Lucas taught sculpture and Scott taught painting. It was here that he felt he made progress with his work. He painted still life, figure studies and landscapes reflecting a strong French influence, particularly of Cézanne and Bonnard. Yet he retained an austerity that was essentially northern European. It was in Pont-Aven that he painted an elderly woman who had once posed for Gauguin as a young girl.
Unfortunately the war brought their stay in France to a sudden end. They moved for a few months to Dublin in 1940, and after the birth of their son Robert moved to Hallatrow, Somerset, where both held teaching positions at the Bath Academy of Art in 1941. Their second son, James, was born the same year. Scott's teaching was interrupted when he joined the army and served with the Royal Engineers (1942–6), and the family moved around to be near where he was stationed. After the war they returned to Somerset, where he was appointed senior painting master at the Bath Academy, at Corsham Court in Wiltshire (1946–56). He visited Cornwall regularly and met many of the St Ives school, including the influential Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Winter. These artists were primarily interested in landscape, whereas he preferred to paint still life and the figure. By then his style had changed and become more ascetic. He used simple kitchen utensils, fish and eggs as subject matter and, using muted colours, explored contrasting shapes and forms, in for example ‘Frying pan’ (1946, oil on canvas, Arts Council collection, London). These paintings, he said, reflected his Ulster Calvinist heritage and the sparse interiors of his youth. Yet the warm sensuality reminiscent of the French painters still pervades them. A visit to the Lascaux caves, France, in 1954 renewed his interest in primitivism and the nude figure, and in ‘Red nude’ (1956) he explores texture and again successfully combines starkness and sensuality.
Scott worked at a summer school in North America in 1953 and, returning through New York, met prominent members of the New York school, including Pollock, Rothko and Kline. Ultimately, though, he felt he belonged to the European tradition of painting. The scale of his work certainly increased and he went through a phase of abstraction, not always meeting with the approval of the critics. From 1954 he exhibited regularly at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, thus further establishing his growing international reputation. Indeed, he was soon able to resign from teaching, in 1956, and concentrate on his painting. Regrettably though, his wife, an artist herself, sacrificed her own work to assist him and it was she who dealt with the increasing calls from gallery directors and collectors.
A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Venice Biennale in 1958 and the following year he won first prize in the British painting section of the second John Moores exhibition, Liverpool. He completed a 45-foot mural for the Altnagelvin hospital in Derry (1958–61); it was later relocated to the postgraduate centre of the Belfast City Hospital. The larger works led him to simpler abstract forms and, through the 1960s, the bigger the painting the more he eliminated, leaving greater expanses of colour. These works remained stark but were never clinical. ‘Two and two 1’ (1963, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane), for example, shows soft-edged flattened shapes painted in warm earth colours. The 1970s and 1980s saw a return to still life and the figure, at first flattened, merging with background, and then more realistic, with the French modern painters returning to mind. His ‘Reclining nude – orange pillow’ (1980–82, private collection), recalls Manet's ‘Olympia’. One of the high points of his career was a great retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972.
Scott died 28 December 1989, aged seventy-six, at his home at Coleford near Bath. He had been suffering for some time from Alzheimer's disease. His reputation as an outstanding artist brought him many awards and distinctions. In 1966 he was appointed CBE and was made an honorary doctor of literature at QUB (1976) and TCD (1977). He was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1984. In Ireland he exhibited in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art several times (in 1945, 1947, 1950, 1960 and 1976) and in the oireachtas art exhibition (in 1973 and 1975). He was at the opening of his show at the Guinness Hop Store in 1986. As part of the oireachtas exhibition in 1990, Scott was commemorated with a memorial tribute showing a small number of his paintings. In 1998 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art there was a major show of his paintings and drawings.