William Scott

The Harbour


Not on display

William Scott 1913–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 613 × 917 mm
In memory of William Scott, a partial gift of Robert Scott and partial loan from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of James Scott 2021


The Harbour 1952 is made of black and white oil paint on canvas. The composition is dominated by a slightly curving black band that reaches about four fifths of the way across the middle of the painting from left to right. A small square of black occupies the top left-hand corner. A thinly painted, narrow black line stretches out from that square across the full width of the canvas and there is another, with four vertical lines beneath it, in the lower part of the composition. Within these black elements white paint has been applied in a generous manner to give a luscious, richly textured surface. For the most part, the white and black paint do not touch and bare ground can be seen between the two elements.

The Harbour was one of a group of works that marked a significant turning point in Scott’s career. Initially a figure and landscape painter in the fashionable neo-romantic mode of the late 1930s and 1940s, his work became progressively tougher and more abstract. Until 1952, however, it had retained recognisable subject matter, particularly table-top still life arrangements and a number of landscape themes. At times his still life paintings had been deliberately anthropomorphic and the ambiguity between objects, figure and landscape became a key part of the work. A rich texture and the expressive potential of the paint itself would also be a recurring feature of Scott’s art, as would a negotiation between that aspect and a more austere formalism. From an early date, Scott was interested in the critic and artist Roger Fry’s (1866–1934) theory of significant form and this, perhaps, emerged most clearly in the starker works of the late 1960s and 1970s (such as Permutations Ochre 1978, Tate T05871). In their restrained palette and composition, works such as The Harbour therefore occupy an important position between the expressiveness of the materiality of paint in Scott’s works of the 1950s and the purity of form of his later works.

The title of this work positions it within a series of paintings of harbours that Scott had made since 1939. These can be seen as progressively simplified in their abstraction. The theme has led this work in particular to be linked to Scott’s association with the painters of St Ives in Cornwall. From 1946, Scott summered near St Ives in Mousehole, a fishing village built around a small harbour. He also associated with St Ives artists, most especially Patrick Heron, in London and at Corsham Court in Wiltshire where, as Head of Painting at Bath Academy of Art from 1946, he employed such painters as Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter. The Harbour was one of two works by Scott included in the Tate Gallery’s St Ives exhibition in 1985.

The title and its appropriateness to the form notwithstanding, figurative references to the body have been discerned in the painting (see David Brown, St Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1985, pp.187–8). The dominant black form across the middle could be read as the narrow space between two legs and this seems to be borne out if the work is compared not only with the artist’s more obviously figurative works but also with a painting especially admired by Scott, Pierre Bonnard’s The Bath 1925 (Tate N04495), in Tate’s collection since 1930. Scott would later insist, ‘I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and erotic’ (quoted in Bowness 1964, p.9).

It was in formal terms, however, that this work was most commonly discussed at the time of its making. Its affinity with St Ives lies more in its aesthetic values than its maritime subject matter. With his works of 1952–3, Scott was seeking to develop a radical new form of modernist painting that retained a relationship with external references, used the material of the paint itself as an expressive, suggestive element and followed accepted formal rules, in particular the insistence on a flat composition that refused any illusion of pictorial space. This was a project he shared with a number of painters in Britain, including Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton, and such European contemporaries as Jean Dubuffet and Serge Poliakoff. An immediate model had been Nicolas de Stäel’s first London exhibition at the Mathiessen Gallery in spring 1952.

The Harbour and the small group to which it belongs were among the most radical paintings made in Britain around that time. This was a moment when a generation of artists whose careers had been interrupted by war reached the conclusion of a period of experimentation to achieve a new language in which material and image were balanced in an expressive equilibrium. Though the monochromatic works by Scott are most closely comparable to similarly austere and near-contemporary paintings by Roger Hilton, they also belong to a wider body of works which make 1952–3 an important year for British art, with key works by Francis Bacon, Peter Lanyon, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, Lynn Chadwick and Reg Butler all appearing at that time.

The Harbour was first shown in Scott’s solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, London in June 1953 and at the São Paulo Bienal in 1953–4. It was included in retrospectives of his work in Hanover in 1960, Berne and Belfast in 1963, the Tate Gallery, London in 1972 and Dublin in 1998.

Further reading
Alan Bowness, William Scott, London 1964.
Norbert Lynton, William Scott, London 2004.
David Anfam, William Scott, exhibition catalogue, McAffrey Fine Art, New York 2010.

Chris Stephens
July 2012

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like

In the shop