Scottie Wilson started drawing comparatively late in life, in his mid 40s, while living in Canada. He never went to art school or took any drawing classes; he left school aged nine and could hardly read, starting drawing on a whim when he picked up a fountain pen he intended to sell. His date of birth is unknown and that isn’t his real name.
He is an outsider artist, in the language of contemporary art. He produced work from a personal compulsion, although he was to become quite successful in the art world after World War II. He met and was admired by some of the leading twentieth century artists and his work is not totally dissimilar from some of the avant-garde currents of the time.
A Whispering Paradise (or Earth and Heaven; 1951, although most of his works are undated and the subject of uncertainty) is typical of Wilson’s work in its subject matter: birds, flowers, geometric patterns, castles or towers, and grotesque monsters. His work has a greater variety than some outsider artists, but these figures recur, along with its composition with multiple levels set out in a flat, frieze-like perspectiveless presentation. Using ink, felt-tip, crayon, pencil, gouache, Wilson sometimes adds elaborate decorative borders, fish, clowns, and other creatures, sometimes filling the image with astonishingly intricate detail.
Different sources give different dates of birth. He appears to have joined the army in 1906, possibly aged 18, though he may have lied about his age in order to sign up. He was born around 1888 or 1889, in Ropework Lane in Glasgow, just north of the Clyde near what is now the St Enoch Centre. His parents were Lithuanian but he was originally called Louis Freeman, only later becoming Robert “Scottie” Wilson. After leaving school at nine, he was mostly unable to read but took up a series of jobs selling things, including newspapers and patent medicines. This salesmanship would stand him in good stead when he came to selling art, but his life took him around the world before then.
He enlisted aged around the age of 18 with the Scottish Rifles and served in India and South Africa, and then on the Western Front in World War I. Some time after the war, he emigrated to Toronto. There he dealt in second-hand goods including fountain pens: art historian John Maizels says he collected the gold from the nibs. Some time in the mid 1930s, aged about 44, he appears to have picked up a certain pen, the “bulldog pen”, and began drawing with it:
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
By the mid 1940s he was already successful, and after exhibiting in Toronto and Vancouver, he returned to UK in 1945, settling in Kilburn, northwest London. A few months after his arrival he showed his work in a one-man show at the Arcade Gallery, alongside an exhibition featuring major European modernists like Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Picasso, and de Chirico. He also exhibited with surrealists in Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947 and had several other shows in London in his lifetime.
For a while he was represented by the distinguished dealers Gimpel Fils, who also handled major British artists including Anthony Caro, Ben Nicholson and Alan Davie as well as acting as British representation for Duchamp, Klein, de Staël, and de Kooning. But Gimpel Fils dropped him after he started selling his drawings more cheaply on a stall in the street outside their Bond St premises. Whatever the truth of that story, it seems he was reluctant to show his work in galleries, but commonly hired rooms himself to exhibit, charging an entrance fee and promising spectators a unique sight.
In early 1950s, he travelled to France at the invitation of Jean Dubuffet, a theorist of “art brut”, the art of the unschooled or mentally ill; Dubuffet was an artist himself, who specialised in primitivist-style works, the sort that people say “my two year old could have drawn that” which was probably Dubuffet’s aim. Unlike many of the artists Dubuffet collected, Wilson showed no signs of mental illness, but Dubuffet emphasised Wilson’s lack of education and illiteracy as a sign of his outsiderdom. With Dubuffet, Wilson also met Picasso; both admired Wilson and acquired some of his work.
He seems to have drawn while in a kind of trance, without much conscious thought. His works portray a conflict between good and evil, with plants, birds, animals, and clowns contrasted with the grotesque and villainous “Greedies” and “Evils”. This sort of conflict is not uncommon in outsider art, most notably in Henry Darger’s epic Story of the Vivian Girls. Wilson’s work has no narrative, and although distinctive symbols commonly recur such as the birds and the castles (which some critics suggest may be fountains, reflecting those in the parks of his native Glasgow). A Whispering Paradise is one of several works to feature what appear to be totem poles, possibly something he saw in Canada.
In some ways he resembles Madge Gill, the working-class, East London-born mediumistic artist who by strange coincidence also spent several years in Ontario, working on farms there as a child. She drew in black ink, during spiritualist trances inspired by a spirit guide called Myrninerest, producing elaborate combinations of foliage, elegant women, and geometrical patterns on scrolls many metres long. Compared to Wilson, Gill was far more possessed with horror vacui, a compulsion to fill in the entire drawing space which is common in outsider artists; although some of Wilson’s art shows extraordinary detailing over the entire surface, A Whispering Paradise and other works make use of blank paper to set off the images.
With his skills at staging exhibitions and promoting himself, Wilson was the equal of any art school graduate: despite his unconventional route into the art world, he was no naif or idiot savant. If he did not quite ascend into the artistic establishment before his death from cancer in 1972, he was certainly in demand. In 1965 he designed plates and dinnerware for Royal Worcester; he designed tapestries for Edinburgh Weavers’ Association and for weavers in Aubusson (Limousin, France); and he drew a Christmas card for Unicef in 1970, a picture called Bird Song.
After his death, his reputation has risen further. Works by Wilson are today held by Tate in London, MoMA in New York, and the National Galleries of Scotland, as well as Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection in Lausanne. Since his death there have been solo shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nottingham, Basel, Regina, and more. He is also the subject of several books, including a 1986 monograph, It’s All Writ Out for You: Life and Work of Scottie Wilson, by critic and musician George Melly.
Despite the apparently personal expression of Wilson’s work, his art suggests a kinship with the academic Scottish artist Alan Davie, whose art combines religious symbols with plants, animals, and geometric forms. Davie’s surreal paintings often resemble outsider art, as did the contemporaneous work of Dubuffet and the CoBrA school in post-war Europe. Throughout the twentieth century, artists from avant-garde and art-school traditions attempted to enliven their works with the influence of art by outsiders. Wilson did not need to seek out that inspiration: it came to him in a Toronto junk shop.
Scottie Wilson, A Whispering Paradise (or Earth and Heaven), 1951.
Crayon, pen, and ink on black paper, 90 x 154 cm.
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.