An Exhibition at Gallery Oldham, 26th January, 2019 to 11th May, 2019

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

Was William Stott a great painter? The answer, I fear, has to be no, he wasn’t. He could be a very good painter, as certain of the works in this exhibition demonstrate, but he was extremely variable, and some of his paintings seem uneven in intention and achievement. But it may be a little unfair to rush to a judgement based on what is to be seen in the current show.

The exhibition is largely meant to showcase what is often referred to as Stott’s “masterpiece,” a large canvas called The Ferryman. And it is a very fine piece of work. It was painted while Stott was living in the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing in France, where among his companions were the American Will Hicok Low and the Irish artist, Frank O’Meara. Among Stott’s interests at the time were the paintings  of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French painter who was a leading light of the Naturalist movement. Stott is often included in surveys of British Impressionism, but though it can’t be denied that, like so many late nineteenth century painters, he could have picked up ideas from the Impressionists, they may not have come to him direct from them. They were filtered through Bastien-Lepage’s work. As Roger Brown pointed has pointedt, Stott “was always more of a Realist than an Impressionist. He was not interested in spontaneity or bright colours; he was more concerned with attention to detail and atmosphere and tonal values”.

There is no doubt that Stott was influenced by the time he spent in France, whether in Paris, Grez-sur-Loing, or Concarneau, where there was also a thriving artists’ colony. And it’s relevant to note that Stott went to Paris from Oldham without feeling the need to venture to London. He achieved some success in France, exhibiting several timed at the Salon, and The Ferryman (Le Passeur) was highly acclaimed when it was shown at the 1882 Salon. It didn’t receive anywhere near the same positive attention when it was later exhibited in London, perhaps because it had the French connection. English critics were still highly suspicious of French influences in the 1880s.

As noted earlier, The Ferryman is the centre of attention in the Oldham exhibition, and it is indeed worthy of careful consideration by the viewer. Stott seems at his best when portraying the two young girls who are gazing across the river at the ferry. They are, in fact, the main focus of the picture in some ways and the actual ferry is only seen in the distance. Stott’s handling of colour, and the attention he pays to the details of the  surrounding landscape, are first-rate.

Another equally attractive Stott painting is Prince or Shepherd, in which a young girl is looking into the distance, and is, it is indicated, daydreaming about what life will bring her. It seems that the picture has also had the title, Girl in a Meadow, and I have to say that I could happily live with that rather than have a suggested interpretation of the girl’s thoughts thrust upon me. However, whatever the title, there’s no doubt that Stott’s skill at landscape painting is well in evidence.

If the two pictures I’ve mentioned have Stott at his best, a couple of others show him to my mind in a less than successful llght. The dreadful, The Birth of Venus, perhaps ought only to be displayed because of the whiff of scandal surrounding it. Stott had used Whistler’s mistress, Maud Franklin, as the model for the nude Venus, and Whistler took offence when the painting was exhibited in public, and broke off his friendship with Stott. The pair even came to blows when they met in a London club. What with that, and George Bernard Shaw in his role of art critic, describing Venus as looking like “an idiotic doll”, as well as another critic saying that Stott’s “ambition exceeds his ability”, the painting could be judged a failure at the time and it still can be.

The other Stott painting that I thought tended not to show him to good effect is The Two Sisters, a fairly dull composition in which the two figures in the foreground almost seem to have been superimposed on the scene as an afterthought. They are rather like cardboard cut-outs placed on the picture and consequently not properly blended into it. I had the feeling that Stott had started a painting showing children playing in the sand near the sea, decided it wasn’t enough, and then put the two sisters there to try to add some substance to the scene. It doesn’t work.

My strictures about a couple of Stott’s paintings should not deter anyone from visiting Gallery Oldham, if only to look at The Ferryman, and Prince or Shepherd. There are several other Stott paintings worth seeing. He was always at ease with landscapes, as he was with seascapes, though they’re not much in evidence in this exhibition. Paintings by some of Stott’s contemporaries, such as Walter Sickert, George Clausen, and John Lavery, also make an appearance to help place Stott in context. 

I quoted from Roger Brown, and it’s worth noting that his book, William Stott of Oldham 1857-1900: “A Comet Rushing to the Sun” (Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2003) was published in connection with an earlier exhibition, William Stott of Oldham,  at Gallery Oldham, 6th December,2003, to 24th April, 2004. I recall visiting this exhibition and it gave a much wider picture of Stott’ work than the current one. Brown’s book still seems to be available at the gallery and is worth buying.