Category Archives: Scottie Wilson

Scottie Wilson returns to England

Douglas Duncan, a Canadian art dealer, discovered Scottie’s drawings and was the first to exhibit his work. Scottie did not want to part with his drawings (hmm … where have I heard that before?) and he suggested that patrons pay to view the exhibit rather than buy his work. (A premonition, perhaps, to his work ending up on museum walls?)

I find it surprising that Scottie’s work was recognized in Toronto in the 1940s. While Europeans were embracing modern artists like Picasso, I would have expected Canadians to be far more conservative and lagging behind in their acceptance of the avant-garde.  Works by the Group of Seven were highly acclaimed at that time, and Scottie’s cross-hatched figures bear no resemblance to Canadian landscape scenes. This indicates a huge gap in my knowledge of Canadian art history and perhaps a reader can enlighten me on this point.

Scottie returned to London in 1945 and was persuaded to show his work in a solo exhibit.  Jean Dubuffet convinced him to go to France, where he was greeted by Pablo Picasso and other fans of his work. An art critic and friend of Scottie’s who travelled with him recalls:

When we arrived, not only was Dubuffet waiting, Pablo Picasso was with him. Both owned a few of Scottie’s pieces, and Picasso had come to see – and perhaps buy – some more. I vividly remember both artists eagerly admiring Scottie’s work, squabbling in their fierce, theatrical, Gallic voices over who would buy which piece.

Scottie's dinnerware design

Scottie, however, viewed commercial art ventures with contempt, and continued to sell his work on the street at minimal prices. He declared that his working-class customers were the intelligent buyers. Strangely, Scottie was commissioned by Royal Worcester to design dinnerware. (How much more commercial could you get, Scottie?) It was produced in two different colours – black on terracotta and grey and black on white glazed earthenware.  A whole range of dinner, tea and coffee, salt/pepper cruet sets were produced until 1965. One of patterns was based on totem poles of the Aboriginal groups, which Scottie had studied while in Canada. The idea of an outsider artist collaborating with one of the most traditional producers of English tableware is so odd that it challenges all of my preconceived notions of what kind of person he was. I would be interested to know how he met the request. Was it with bewilderment, excitement, interest, or derision? Did he take the commission for the notoriety, the money, or some other reason that we’ll never understand?

His picture, Song  Bird, was chosen for the 1970 UNICEF card design.

Scottie died from cancer in 1972. Although he complained of poverty his entire life, a suitcase full of money was found under his bed after his death, as well as large sums of money in various bank accounts. I wasn’t surprised to learn that.

About Scottie Wilson’s work

Gallery owner,  Douglas Duncan, left a meticulous inventory of Scottie’s work. It provides a chronological list of 260 of the 600 or so drawings that Scottie made in Canada. The detailed descriptions of Scottie’s work reveal his artistic development, dimensions, dates, when he changed his signature (1942) and, as I understand, has proven to be a plausible benchmark for dating his work.

Scottie’s first drawings with his “bulldog pen” are sometimes described as organic doodles, flowing from a centre point on the page. Some resemble a human face; others are like vegetation, abstract patterns, architecture, and animals, and have less of his trademark cross-hatching style.

Scottie’s later work depicted characters, which Scottie described as “evils and greedies” (malignant figures).  They existed alongside symbols of goodness and truth. I am reminded of other outsider artists, like Renaldo Kuhler (see earlier blogs), who created a world of good and evil actors. In Renaldo’s case they sprung from his personal encounters in life and were subject to his will in Rocaterrania.

Later drawings are more symmetrical, coloured pencil and wax crayon were added to his tool kit, and the cross-hatching became more complex.  One curator has indentified 7 styles of cross-hatching: angles; double shark’s fin; rope; overlapping shoals, wavy forms; saw teeth, and scales.  It was a hypnotic activity.  In his own words:

When I’m working I can see what’s happening, and I can imagine what’s going to happen. I can see best when I’m finishing my pictures with a pen. When I’m making strokes; hundreds and thousands of strokes, I can see very clearly. But when I’m designing a picture, that’s different. I can’t see then. I’m too absorbed in creation.

Scottie’s drawings were from his own imagination; they were not an attempt to document events in the outside world as in folk or naive art. Scottie avoided questions about his work and the source of his imagery.  He once said: “If you asked William Blake where he got his images from – what do you think he’d say? Ha Ha! He’d laugh at you.”

Touché.

Onto the Canadians and Scottie Wilson

Scottie Wilson

If you know who Scottie Wilson was, you may be as surprised as I to learn that he is described as a Canadian outsider artist. I discovered this when I searched the Anthony Petullo collection for Canadian content, and there he was.  In fact, there is an exhibit catalogue (1989) from the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. (BTW:  this 58-page catalogue is listed on Amazon for $339 – I’m not kidding! – and I bought mine for $20 directly from the Dunlop Gallery.  A sucker is born … how often?)

Like all outsider artists, Scottie took a circuitous route to creating his art. Details of his early life are somewhat sketchy, but George Melly’s biography enlightens us a bit. We know that Louis Freeman (Scottie) was born in London in 1888, moved to Glasgow, and left school at age 8 to sell newspapers and patent medicines on the street. He served in WWI and it is believed he deserted the Black and Tans in Ireland because he could not, in good conscience, carry out their orders. Nothing else is known about Scottie until he turned up in Toronto, Canada 13 years later, in the 1930s. Shortly after he started drawing, he changed his name to Scottie Wilson – maybe to mark the change of direction in his life, perhaps to avoid detection by military/immigration officials, or to conceal his Jewish heritage.

Scottie scratched out a meagre living by selling various things in a Toronto junk shop. He collected fountain pens, which he sold in his shop or stripped for the gold. His life changed while doodling with one of his fountain pens one day.  Scottie said:

 I’m listening to classical music one day – Mendelssohn – when all of a sudden I dipped the bulldog pen into a bottle of ink and started drawing – doodling I suppose you’d call it – on the cardboard tabletop. I don’t know why. I just did. In a couple of days – I worked almost ceaselessly – the whole of the tabletop was covered with little faces and designs. The pen seemed to make me draw, and them images, the faces and designs just flowed out. I couldn’t stop – I’ve never stopped since that day.

Indeed, Scottie did not stop drawing until his death in 1972, some 37 years later.