Scottie Wilson Exhibition 2018

Scottie Wilson's discovery that he could draw was as much a surprise to him as it was to anyone. Picking up a bulldog pen in his second-hand store, he began to doodle one day on top of a table. Within hours the surface was covered in tiny faces, flowers and stylised figures conjured purely from his imagination: '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…'

Born in Glasgow in 1891, Wilson left for Canada after serving in the Scottish Rifles. Though little is known about his life, it was here, aged around forty years old, that he realised a passion for drawing, abandoning his job as a shopkeeper to make his trade as an artist. Intensely distrustful of dealers, he held few exhibitions, preferring instead to keep work for himself and display it in his own touring shows, charging nominal entrance fees. In 1945 he left Canada for London, just as galleries began to clamour for his work, and had drawings exhibited alongside Picasso, Klee, Miró, and de Chirico.

The writer and critic Mervyn Levy was among the few industry figures in whom Wilson put his faith. His son, Ceri, recalls the walls of their house 'festooned with Scottie's drawings'. He was the 'mischievous, cantankerous' visitor whose 'gruffness would give way to kindness' as he sat and drew in his rooms: 'I watched him carefully filling in empty space with lines and colour and, as if by magic, his worlds would appear.' Though he decried snobbery and professed a hatred for the establishment, his flat caps, symbols of his working-class roots, were purchased from the most expensive outfitters on Jermyn Street - a 'subversive infiltration of high society' that appealed to his 'natural impish character.'

His first drawings drew inspiration from the animistic totem pole carvings in the parks of Vancouver. From these Wilson drew similar faces, believed to be self-portraits, surrounded by ornamental birds, fish, flowers and trees. But for many years, as Levy writes, the happy lands of his colourful creations were invaded by self-referential 'greedies and evils': 'These strange creatures, with upturned noses and sometimes spiky hair, would threaten the peace of the idyllic world Scottie drew. His work is termed visionary and mystic, but I would add to that prophetic: he realised that man was a dreadful danger to himself and the world around him.'

With time, the pictures became more tender and gentle. The threat from these demons was largely gone: 'The challenge now', writes Levy, 'was purely metaphysical, and he relied on his familiar cast to see him through the darkness of old age.' He remains, Levy continues, 'one of the best kept secrets. Jean Dubuffet and Picasso collected Scottie's drawings, he exhibited with the Surrealists, and his work is held by the finest museums and collections in the world, and yet he is still an artist who is new for many people. My father suggested Scottie's work is about reconnecting to his childhood, to a time when things were easier and perhaps more poetic. Many of us seek a way back to our past; in Scottie's work, perhaps we can move one step closer to it.'


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