“Life - It’s all writ out for you, the moves you make...” was a favorite saying of Scottie Wilson. An English artist who grew up in Scotland, later moving to Canada before returning to his native England, he was an enigmatic character, and his drawings share this mysterious quality. Distinctive hatch marks provide texture in his works, populated by sinister ‘greedies and evils’ in his earlier pieces, later replaced with serenely decorative swans and fish. A self-taught artist, Wilson was rather successful, in conventional terms, by the end of his life, though not even those who knew him realized how successful he was.
Scottie Wilson was born in 1891 in Glasgow, Scotland. He didn’t complete many years of schooling, and while still in his teens joined the Scottish Rifles. Through two terms of military service, he saw France and far-away places such as South Africa and India.
Details of his life aren’t clear, but it is known that he left for Canada, probably sometime in the late 1920s. Ever the traveler, he spent time in various cities, and around 1935 had set up a second-hand store in Toronto. It was here that he began to draw.
He was fascinated by a pen that he had come across in his store and suddenly was compelled to put it to use: “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.” (Levy, pg. 9)
An art dealer, Douglas Duncan, took an interest in Wilson’s work and displayed it in gallery shows. Even as he was receiving recognition for his work, he suddenly left Canada in 1945, returning to London. Only a few short months after his arrival, he had a solo exhibition which ran at the Arcade Gallery in London, shown concurrently with “Surrealist Diversity” which included such 20th century luminaries as Picasso, De Chirico, Klee, Miró, and others.
Though conventional art galleries were taking interest in selling Wilson’s work, he wasn’t always fond of parting with his drawings. He would at times rent out vacant store fronts to display his pictures, or hang them in a bus, but not necessarily to sell. Instead, Wilson would charge admission for looking at his work, challenging anyone to find anything else like it in the world.
Wilson spent his remaining years in Kilburn, an area of northwest London, working in his small lodgings and leading a humble existence. In the early 1950s, he traveled to France at the request of Jean Dubuffet, a leading proponent of the field of outsider art. Wilson was accompanied by his friend, art critic Bill Hopkins, who recounts their first meeting with Dubuffet: “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.” (Petullo, pg. 183)
In the 1960s, Wilson began to create paintings on plates. He was subsequently commissioned by Royal Worcester to design a series of dinnerware, which was produced until 1965. His picture ‘Bird Song’ was chosen as a design for the 1970 UNICEF Christmas Card. Scottie Wilson continued drawing until his death in 1972 from cancer.
Marzolf, Helen. Scottie Wilson: The Canadian Drawings. Regina, Saskatchewan: Dunlop Art Gallery
Melly, George. It’s All Writ Out for You: The Life and Work of Scottie Wilson. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1986
Petullo, Anthony. Self-Taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection. University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Petullo, Anthony J. and Katherine M. Murrell. Scottie Wilson: Peddler Turned Painter. Milwaukee: Petullo Publishing, 2004.
Schreiner, Gerard A. Scottie Wilson. Zehnder SA, Rorschach, 1979.
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