Great Painters Are Rare: William Stott of Oldham,1857-1900, an exhibition at Oldham Art Gallery until May 11th

Reviewed by Richard Clegg

 William Stott led two lives, one rooted in Oldham and its environs, the other outside Paris in a centre for modern painters at Grez-sur-Loing where he made his home.  The son of a mill owner, Stott trained at Oldham and Manchester School of Art. It is fitting that Oldham should host the exhibition as Stott insisted on being called William Stott of Oldham until his death.

The Oldham exhibition includes a selection of Stott’s work from its earliest phase to its latest.  His reputation has grown and so, too, has the value of his work.  His most important work fills the wall as you enter the gallery. It is called Le Passeur  (The Ferryman) and is owned by the Tate. For many it is a breakthough work to a new form of Naturalism.

Two girls are looking across the river at the far bank and houses that are made up of blocks of pale colours and are inscrutable. The palette is muted and has none of the exuberance and vibrant colours of many of the impressionists and post-impressionists. Most readings of the painting rest on the two girls, one younger and seemingly carefree, the older more thoughtful, reflecting perhaps on the passing of time or of life itself in the river. The viewer of the painting sees the figures from a further distance, suffused in melancholy, separate yet together.  Like Las Meninas it is a painting about looking and seeing, surfaces and depths, the viewer and the viewed.

The other paintings in the gallery reflect an artist growing to maturity, adding an accuracy of depiction to a developing sense of symbolism. The painting My Father and Mother has affinities with some of the work of Whistler, for some time one of his closest friends. To Walter Sickert, Stott was “one of the two greatest painters of the world ” and Le Passeur a great painting

The exhibition gives the visitor a chance to see paintings from Oldham’s extensive collection and adds further to its reputation as a gallery that, like Stott himself, transforms the provincial into the universal.

Richard Clegg

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