Buildings that look as if they are made of matchwood, snakes, birds, mysterious mythical animals, cheeky faces, colourful curving plants and flowers, “Greedies” and “Evils”, all intertwined in the ongoing battle between good and evil created from hundreds and thousands of penstrokes by the self-taught artist Scottie Wilson, considered one of the leading British “Outsider Artists”.
The east end of London in 1888 must have been a frightening place. Not only were five bodies of women found in Whitechapel, their murder and mutilation attributed to Jack the Ripper, but at least two others were found elsewhere. On a positive note, Celtic Football Club in Glasgow, having been founded the year before to reduce poverty amoung the immigrant Irish community in the east end of the city, played its first official match in May, a friendly against Rangers Football Club which it won 5 goals to 2.
In June of that year, in Ropework Lane down by the bustling River Clyde in the centre of Glasgow, Louis Freeman was born, later to change his name to Scottie Wilson. By all accounts, he was quite a character. He dropped out of school when he was eight years old to work to supplement his family’s income and in 1906 he enlisted with the Scottish Rifles and subsequently served during the First World War on the Western Front after which he moved to Toronto in Canada where he opened a second-hand shop. It was there that the artist Scottie Wilson was effectively born after he started doodling with one of the fountain pens in his shop and discovered his talent for his unique style of art:
“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.”
Even then, he did not want to sell his work and tried to make an income from paid exhibitions, which he continued when he moved to London in 1945 before being persuaded to sell through galleries. Unconventional as always, he sold some of his work in the street for a fraction of the prices charged in the galleries, claiming that his working class customers were “the intellect, you know”.
Scottie Wilson’s work was admired and collected by Jean Debuffet and Pablo Picasso and he was also commissioned to produce designs for ceramics by Royal Doulton. Finally, always complaining of poverty, when he died in 1972 from cancer, a suitcase stuffed with money was found under his bed in addition to large amounts in various bank accounts.
Adding to the three exhibitions of Scottish art in London this spring, a good selection of his work is currently on display at Gimpel Fils, including his largest pen drawings.
Later in April, a fifth London exhibition of Scottish art in opens at the Mall Galleries with a retrospective of the work of the figurative Scottish painter Alexander Goudie (1933-2004), who was not only a respected portrait painter but also, like Scottie Wilson, designed ceramics, in this case a series of sculptures portraying Bretons for the Musee de la Faience in Quimper.