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Monumental masterpieces by William Scott emerge from Irish collections
William Scott, Berlin Blues 2, oil on canvas, 161 by 173cm, 1965 (est. £350,000-450,000). Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- William Scott was among the most internationally celebrated British painters of the 20th century, his works acquired by the most forward-thinking collectors and institutions of their day.

This monumental painting from the pivotal Berlin Blues series caught the eye of Dr Ronald Tallon, an influential Irish modernist architect, who persuaded Scott’s wife Mary to part with it having caught a glimpse of the painting hanging in the Scotts’ London home. Prior to this, Tallon had purchased the sister work from the series, Berlin Blues I, for the Bank of Ireland collection (later donated to the Irish Museum of Modern Art). Scott himself considered this impactful painting immensely significant, selecting it as the basis for a five-pence stamp design he created for the Eire postal service in 1973. Having first pondered in a letter to his son as to whether or not the first ever abstract stamp would be met with approval, his doubts were proved to be unfounded, as eight million copies permeated the consciousness of the Irish public.

Following the energetic, rhythmic nature of the Berlin Blues series, Scott’s work from the early 1970s took on a fresh and understated aesthetic – marking a return to the still life subject matter that had been a major pre-occupation throughout his life. Dark Earth Scheme encapsulates the very best of Scott’s poetic sense of space, with his instantly recognisable simplified forms arranged in perfect harmony on a backdrop of rich, ochre tones. This large-scale painting was acquired by Dr John O’Driscoll, one of Ireland’s most signficant collectors of International Modernism, the year after it was painted – hanging in his home alongisde works by by Kees van Dongen, Edgar Degas, Joan Mitchell, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein and Alberto Giacometti, as well as Scott’s friend Patrick Heron.

Interwoven with the history of these uncompromisingly modern collectors, Berlin Blues 2 and Dark Earth Scheme will be offered at auction for the first time on 12 June, both having remained in family collections since they were first acquired. On Sunday 10 June at 2pm, Sotheby’s galleries will host a public talk with Sotheby’s senior specialist Simon Hucker in conversation with the artist’s son Robert Scott on ‘The Art of William Scott’.

Born the son of a sign-painter and one of eleven children, the ideas of austerity from Scott’s upbringing stayed with him throughout his life, who once said that he finds ‘beauty in plainness… in a conception that is precise’. Scott was also one of the primary conduits between the New York Abstract Expressionists and the avant-garde community in the United Kingdom, ‘the scale, audacity and self-confidence’ of these works inspiring him greatly. He first visited New York in 1953 where he was introduced to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and most significantly Mark Rothko, who became a firm friend and visited Scott in Cornwall in 1959.

Scott moved to Berlin in 1963 on the invitation of the Ford Foundation to take part in the Berliner Künstlerprogramm artist-in-residence programme. The stimulus of Berlin was at once both cerebral, as he mingled with Berlin creatives, and tangible – the eponymous colour of the Berlin Blues series was a pigment Scott discovered whilst in the city. The emphasis on emblematic flatness and abstract formal relationships in these works was also partly rooted in an avid interest in Egyptian sculpture, fuelled by the exceptional archaeological collections in the city. Scott was so enamoured with the heady offering of interdisciplinary creativity that he remained in Germany beyond the residency, taking the opportunity to come and go between East and West Berlin, crossing the border for ballet and theatre performances.

These paintings formed the basis for his solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1965, as well as featuring in the retrospective at the Tate in 1972. Berlin Blues 2 was last exhibited in 2000 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and will go on view to the public for the first time in almost two decades as part of Sotheby’s Modern British Week from Friday 8 June.

The genesis for Scott’s life-long obsession for the theme of the still life was a visit to an exhibition in Paris in the summer of 1946, entitled ‘A Thousand Years of Still Life Painting’. The show left him overwhelmed with the notion that despite a seemingly ‘limited’ subject, the genre had been a powerful one for artists for countless generations. Scott developed a vocabulary of distinctive forms inspired by objects familiar to him. In much the same way as the Cubists used the guitar and bottles as ciphers of the bohemian life, so Scott focused on the long handled frying pan and square bowl, both placed on a flattened table top, as signifiers of simple domesticity and the enduring power of hearth and home.

Simon Hucker, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Modern & Post-War British Art, said: “These two major paintings are amongst the most significant works by William Scott to be offered at auction is recent years. Between them, they distil all of Scott’s artistic concerns: his perfect balance between figuration and abstraction; his mastery of colour and tone; as well as his preoccupation in the 60s and 70s with the scale and the audacity of American art. We are thrilled to be offering two such important works, all the more so because of their distinguished provenances, from two of Ireland’s great collectors of Modern art.”

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