William Scott and Mark Rothko, Somerset, 1959.  Photograph by James Scott.
© James Scott Courtesy of William Scott Foundation.

This photograph of William Scott and Mark Rothko was taken in August 1959 by Scott’s eighteen year old son James, outside the family’s home at Hallatrow in Somerset.1 What is remarkable about the image is how at home this famously serious leviathan of the New York School looks, standing on a grassy bank in deepest rural England. With his jacket unbuttoned, his not-inconsiderable bulk shifted casually onto one leg, Rothko casts his gaze evenly but with evident warmth towards the photographer. With his left hand wedged into a trouser pocket, the thumb and forefinger of the right gently press together, holding down the thread of a conversation briefly on pause.

This image of Rothko stands in vivid contrast to almost all other photographs of the artist, in particular the haunting and haunted images of him towards the end of his life, before his tragic suicide in February 1970, where he stares from out of the semi-darkness to a further blackness beyond. Even in the famous LIFE magazine group-shot of the ‘Irascibles’ from 1950 – the photograph that created the idea of a ‘New York School’ – Rothko looks distinctly ill at ease, unlike Jackson Pollock in dead centre, striking a pose that is a cross between Rodin’s thinker and Jimmy Dean.2 Rothko, given the opportunity by the photographer to pose as he wished, looks like he doesn’t want to be there at all; it’s as if he is trying to disappear behind his cigarette, which he holds rather threateningly, like a knife.

In photographs of him in his studio, where the photographer, one senses, is there on sufferance, to mythologise and then be gone, Rothko uses his cigarette to ward off the camera’s gaze, a way of remaining elusive and ineffable just at the moment someone is trying to fix the essence of his personality on film. Here on an English summer afternoon, as he stands for his portrait, there seems no need for this charm against the darkness. The cigarette does re-appear, though, a few shots down the roll, as Rothko points towards James behind the camera, in what seems like playful admonishment, warning him that the guard is about to go back up.

That Rothko should be so at home in the company of the Scotts speaks volumes for the two men’s relationship and their empathy as artists. They had met six years earlier, in 1953, through the New York gallerist, Martha Jackson who had first come across Scott in June of that year. James Johnson Sweeney, the director of the Guggenheim Museum, along with Andrew Ritchie, the director of MOMA, had seen Scott’s show at the Hanover Gallery in London and had reported back to Jackson, later adding with a certain hyperbole, that ‘at last England has a painter!’3 Jackson wasted no time in asking Scott to visit her in New York, on his way through from a summer’s teaching at the Banff School of Fine Art at the University of Alberta, offering him use of the bedroom in her gallery. When Scott arrived in September, Jackson immediately invited him out to Long Island, where she was spending the summer along with a coterie of New York School artists including Pollock, de Kooning and James Brooks. It was here that Scott witnessed de Kooning painting his Woman series in his improvised studio on the porch of Leo and Illeana Castelli’s house.4

As Scott later recalled: ‘I was already familiar with the work of Jackson Pollock, having seen one large work by him in London that summer [at the ICA] but others I had never heard of… I was taken to meet Jackson Pollock in Long Island and a number of other painters were living there that summer, including de Kooning. Back in New York I met Rothko and I spent several evenings with Kline at the Cedar Bar. I was the first European painter apparently to visit Pollock, but Rothko and Kline, I gathered, were very Anglophile and very curious to hear about the art situation in England… My first impression was bewilderment, it was not the originality of the work, but it was the scale, audacity and self confidence – something had happened to painting… I returned convinced that the Americans had made a great discovery and that the mood in England – a longing for nice comfortable realist art – would not last much longer. When I got back I found that Patrick Heron was particularly interested and he soon made a friendship with Clement Greenberg, who was familiar with his writing and painting.’5

William Scott on Leo and Illeana Castelli’s porch in East Hampton, Long Island, standing in front of a Woman painting in progress by Willem de Kooning, August 1953.  Courtesy of William Scott Foundation.

That Rothko and Scott hit it off is evident not just in this photograph, but in Scott’s reading of Rothko’s work, which is subtle and deeply empathetic, writing that the ‘large empty shapes were the least part of his impressiveness’ and what mattered more was ‘his daring and beautiful colour and handling’.6 His view on Rothko was enhanced with the arrival of MOMA’s Modern Art in the United States in London in 1956: indeed Roger Hilton was moved to write that Scott at this time was giving American Art ‘too high marks’.7

Rothko visited England in 1957 and he and his young family stayed with the Scotts at Hallatrow, meeting up later in the year in Venice, with both perhaps surveying the lie of the land for their participation in the Biennale the following year. When Rothko returned to the house in August 1959, he was stopping on his way down to stay with Peter Lanyon in St Ives. He had met Lanyon at the Cornishman’s first New York solo show at Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957. As the art historian and Tate curator Chris Stephens notes in his essay ‘Rothko and St Ives’, Lanyon no doubt sold Rothko on the inspirational atmosphere and light of his native West Penwith, but the American could also have been persuaded to take the long journey down from London by the dealer Charles Gimpel,8 who often sent visitors to St Ives, to see for themselves the ‘sea-coast of bohemia’.9

During three days in St Ives, Rothko and his wife became fully immersed in the local scene, hopping from one painter’s studio to another, drinking and dancing – ending up in a midnight flit to the Carn, Bryan Wynter’s extremely basic house and studio high up in the moors overlooking Zennor, where late-night discussion of the latest ideas in art and poetry were the norm.10

Rothko had begun the murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the spring, but the project was already weighing heavily upon him, not least the realisation that these immense, brooding works were going to end up decorating New York’s latest, smartest spot for social and business networking. The trip to Europe was clearly a means of escape. Rothko seems to have seriously considered buying a Methodist chapel near Lelant, not, as Lanyon suggested as a studio, but as a permanent space for installation of his paintings, a prototype of the space he later created for the de Menils in Houston. As Stephens notes: ‘the nature of Cornish chapels, distributed as they are all over the landscape, often detached from villages, must have seemed particularly appropriate for such a plan. They would certainly have seemed in marked contrast to the opulent restaurant for which his own murals were destined’.11

Lunch at the chapel, Kerris, August 1959
Left to right: Mell Rothko, Mark Rothko, Terry Frost, Mary Miles, June Miles, Christine Feiler, Helen Feiler, Anthony Feiler, and Peter Lanyon.
© The Estate of Paul Feiler, Image courtesy of Redfern Gallery.

A few months after he returned from Cornwall, Rothko refused to hand over the Seagram murals. As he wrote to Scott: ‘What is depressing is the thought that there is really no place for them. Where in this world are the edifices which share the motives from which our pictures are painted?’12 Scott would have a very deep reason to empathise, as he too was working on a grand mural scheme – for the Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, in his native Northern Ireland. Pared-down, monumental, Rothko-esque in many ways, these paintings should have marked a high point in his career: however, within half an hour of their unveiling, the room of assembled dignitaries was almost completely empty.13

The year after his trip to Somerset and Cornwall, Rothko withdrew from the Seagram project. That these incredible paintings would, 10 years later, end up in the Tate no doubt has almost everything to do with the tenacity of the gallery’s then-director, Sir Norman Reid. But one can’t help but wonder if the seed for the idea was maybe sown that summer’s afternoon in Somerset, as Scott and Rothko posed for James’ camera.


1This short essay is much indebted to the following texts: Norbert Lynton, William Scott, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004, especially Chapter 3 – ‘Abstraction and Figuration: Moments of Transition’ and Dr Chris Stephens, ‘Rothko and St Ives’, essay published in a pamphlet to accompany the exhibition Mark Rothko in Cornwall, Tate St Ives, May – November 1996; we are also very grateful to James and Robert Scott and The Feiler Estate (courtesy of the Redfern Gallery) for granting permission to reproduce these important photographs.

2The photograph, taken by Nina Leen, was staged on November 24th 1950 and published in Life on January 5th 1951.

3A letter from Martha Jackson to Scott dated 25 September 1953, quotes Sweeney’s words (William Scott Archive)

4See Sarah Whitfield (ed.), William Scott Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings, Vol. 2, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013, p.18.

5From ‘Biographical Notes’ put together by Scott and Alan Bowness for the exhibition catalogue of Scott’s 1972 retrospective at Tate, London, quoted in Lynton, op. cit., p.109

6Ibid. p.71, quoted in Lynton, op. cit., p.109

77 Ibid. p.72, quoted in Lynton, op. cit.,p.111

8Stephens, op. cit., p. 5.

9This description of the scene in St Ives is attributed to the poet David Lewis, who moved to Cornwall after the war, attempting to live on no income whatsoever, in the process setting the standard of living in a state of squalor and starvation in pursuit of Art. The source is Shakespeare – ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

10Stephens, ibid. p.5-7.

11Stephens, ibid. p. 7.

12Rothko letter to Scott, 14 December 1959 (William Scott Archive), quoted in Stephens, ibid. p.7.

13From an email from the collector Robert Fusillo, sent to the William Scott Archive, quoted in Sarah Whitfield (ed.), William Scott Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings, Vol. 3, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013, p.17.