James Fraser Scott was born in Roslyn, Dunedin, New Zealand, on the 24 September 1877, the son of David Scott, a picture framer, decorator and artist, and Catherine née Fraser. He studied at the Dunedin School of Art and, while studying there, won the Otago Art Society’s gold medal for landscape and figure drawing upon his exhibition debut with the Society in 1896. He then travelled to Europe in 1898, studying first under Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian in Paris, along with Melbourne artist James S. MacDonald, then at the Munich Academy of Arts (Akademie der Bildenden Künste München) under Carl von Marr. Scott also travelled through Brussels, Antwerp, Rome, Florence and Venice. In 1901, while studying in Munich, Scott had a work, Intérieur hollandaise (Dutch interior), accepted by the Paris Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, apparently the first New Zealand-born artist to be so honoured. There are examples of Scott’s Venice studies in the Auckland and Christchurch collections.
After several years abroad, Scott had returned to New Zealand by the early 1900s. He worked in a studio overlooking the Octagon, Dunedin, which was the subject of his 1903 painting The Octagon, Dunedin, looking across George Street to Stuart Street from the artist’s studio. Scott then took up a position teaching at Wellington Technical College in 1906 and 1907. By now his work was being regularly exhibited in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington, where his portraiture in particular was gaining press notice. “Here,” said the Wellington Evening Post of 12 October 1907 about his latest portraits, “the artist frankly confesses that his work must not be examined with a magnifying glass; but in his few (seemingly) rough sweeps with the brush, he has produced pictures that command respect.”
In 1908 he moved to Sydney, living and painting around Narrabeen, in the northern beaches, exhibiting with the New South Wales Society of Artists, the Royal Art Society of New South Wales and the South Australian Society of Arts (SASA). During this period Scott also worked as a book illustrator for the New South Wales Bookstall Company. Scott’s interest in the landscapes around Sydney attracted the attention of the Sydney Morning Herald in October 1910, its art critic describing Scott’s Evening at Rose Bay as his “chief work… wherein the eye lingers with pleasure upon a clever foreground of stream and grass, with light gleaming on the tree-trunks, but does not entirely accept the accentuated crimson of the sun-set touches in the distance. It is to be feared that the idea of remoteness so ably conveyed will not be true to the locality much longer.” Another work from Scott’s Sydney period is Fetching the cows (1911), now in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection.
By 1912 Scott was living in Gawler Street, Adelaide, having apparently travelled there cross-country, and continued to exhibit with the SASA. His Adelaide work seems to have concentrated on portraiture and genre painting rather than landscape subjects, as can be seen in the work “Hold that!” (the rehearsal), which was exhibited at the SASA’s 1915 Federal exhibition and reproduced in the catalogue.
In May 1916 Scott enlisted with the Australian Infantry Force [AIF] and was serving in France in September 1917 when he was wounded in his left hand. While in hospital, Adelaide artist Ida H. Hamilton made contact with him. After his recovery, Scott trained as a camoufleur and was commissioned as an official war artist for the AIF, along with Melbourne artists Daryl Lindsay, Frank Crozier, Will Longstaff, Louis McCubbin, George C. Benson and his former Parisian classmate James S. MacDonald.
Originally sent to the Flanders battlefields while the other AIF artists were sent to the Somme, Scott later joined his colleagues at the Somme. He was supposedly the first artist on the scene at Mont St. Quentin in the early days of September 1918, just after the decisive battle there, in which the Australian forces had played the pivotal role. The Australian War Memorial (AWM) collection has a number of Scott’s paintings. These include battle and aftermath scenes, as well as images of everyday army camp life and a later self-portrait. His oil painting of a Nissen Hut occupied by 1st Division AIF (1918) shows the rough frontline accommodation cheered up by a bouquet of white and yellow flowers in a bucket, an image of domesticity in adversity that is reminiscent of Frank Hurley’s colour photograph of Trooper George Redding gathering anemones in Palestine, taken in the same year, which is also in the AWM collection. Scott also contributed illustrations to the AIF’s monthly journal, Dinkum Australian.
After the armistice, Scott was working with three of the AIF artists, Will Longstaff, Frank Crozier and George C. Benson, in a studio in St. John’s Wood, London, when he decided to remain in London. He explained in his demobilisation papers that England was “a much better field” for artists than Australia, or New Zealand. Ironically, Australian art was on the verge of a sales boom at the time, with several of his AIF colleagues choosing to return to Australia during the early 1920s. In 1919 Scott’s work was accepted into the Royal Academy (RA) for the first time and, contrary to legend, he would become a semi-regular exhibitor with the RA for the next few years.
In 1920 Scott’s paintings attracted press attention when news reached London of the imminent return of Sir William Orpen’s painting Sowing New Seed (for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland) by the Art Gallery of South Australia to Orpen’s studio, the work having been purchased for the gallery by Margaret Rose Macpherson (Margaret Preston) before the war. It was pointed out by the London Daily Sketch that Scott’s The Glory of Dawn (a.k.a. Dance to the pipes of Pan or Spring rite), which was then on exhibition in London with the Society of Australian Artists, was significantly more erotic in content and free with figure composition than the controversial Orpen work rejected by Adelaide’s art establishment. Scott was also one of the expatriate New Zealand and Australian artists whose work was reproduced in Colour magazine around this time, a group which included Raymond McIntyre, Frederick Porter, Frances Hodgkins, Margaret Rose Macpherson, Horace Brodzky and Hall Thorpe.
In 1924 Scott was commissioned to contribute work to decorate the Australian pavilion at the 'British Empire Exhibition’ at Wembley, London. The following winter, Scott was commissioned to add similar works to the New Zealand pavilion in preparation for the Exhibition’s 1925 season. A painting also exists showing the Australian Pavilion looking towards the Indian Pavilion. In the spring of 1925 Scott also participated in the 'Australian Artists’ Exhibition’ held at Spring Gardens Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London. Scott evidently visited France after this, as he exhibited a scene in Brittany, The Rance, Lower Dinan, in the following year’s RA exhibition. In the 1929 edition of Who’s who in art, Scott listed his favourite recreation as golf.
After having spent the Depression years struggling to keep painting while living on a meagre pension, Scott became seriously ill during early 1932. He nevertheless continued working and submitted a painting to the RA. This work, A sculptor’s studio, was a watercolour showing Scott’s neighbour, British sculptor James A. Stevenson, a.k.a. 'Myrander’, surrounded by a number of models of war memorials. On Anzac Day, awaiting news of the Royal Academy’s selection committee’s decision, he was admitted to St. Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth, London. Scott died, apparently within hours of being told his painting had been accepted for exhibition, on 26 April 1932. A memorial exhibition was held in Dunedin the following year.
Besides the Australian War Memorial’s collection, Scott’s work is held in many New Zealand public galleries, libraries and museums, including the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Otago University’s Hocken Library in Dunedin, Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery in Napier, Te Manawa Manawatu Art Gallery in Palmerston North, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu, Rotorua Museum of Art and History, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui in Wanganui and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.
- Eric Riddler
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