Scott Sutherland - Biography
This biography of Scott Sutherland was written by Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee for a Webinar that was broadcast on 21 May 2022. The transcript has been edited to accurately capture the spoken word into the written one produced below.
Labor Vincit –
The Work and Influence of Scott Sutherland RSA, 1910 – 1984.
In 1940 Scott Sutherland won the Guthrie Award for the best work in the Royal Scottish Academy Exhibition for a work entitled "Labor Vincit".
Scott Sutherland RSA, 1910 – 1984.
There can be few visitors to the Scottish Highlands who have not seen the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. It remains one of the most iconic pieces of public sculpture in Scotland, and a frequent stopping point for tourists travelling to Skye. Yet remarkably little has been written about its creator, Scott Sutherland, despite his considerable achievements as an artist and his arguably greater influence as a teacher.
Sutherland was born in Wick in 1910 and studied first at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen then at Edinburgh College of Art where he trained in sculpture under Alexander Carrick. Sutherland later enjoyed telling his own students that they were part of a sculptural lineage that could be traced directly to Rodin, via Carrick, William Birnie Rhind and Edouard Lanteri. Following his diploma, Sutherland was awarded a postgraduate year followed by a Carnegie Travelling Scholarship in 1933, which took him to Egypt, Greece and Italy. The following year, another scholarship took him to France where he undertook further study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and separately with the sculptors Jan and Joel Martel. The Martels’ cubist-inspired work undoubtedly influenced his Adoration piece exhibited in Paris in 1934. On his return, the College of Art granted him an Andrew Grant Fellowship, providing him with financial support for a further two years.
Throughout his career Sutherland had an interest in depicting sports, and his early efforts might have led to a commission in 1937 from the Scottish Athletic Federation for a large-scale trophy figure.
In 1938 he was asked to create several works for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, including statues of Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Thomas Carlyle. He was also continuing to explore vertical group forms with work like The Riveters (1934) and Unity (1935) – these culminated in Labor Vincit, which won the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), Guthrie Prize in 1940 for the best work in its annual exhibition.
By that time, Sutherland had joined the Army and served in Anti-Aircraft Regiments throughout the war, while also qualifying as a PT instructor. He continued to send work to the RSA, now featuring soldiers rather than workmen.
At the end of the war, Sutherland was appointed to teach Modelling & Sculpture at Belfast School of Art, but two years later the opportunity came to allow him to return to Scotland. Dundee College of Art (later renamed Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art) was undergoing a considerable transformation at that time. As part of Dundee Institute of Art & Technology, it was sharing increasingly cramped premises with the Technical College on Bell Street but a bequest by the late James Duncan of Jordanstone had allowed it to plan its own, much larger, building on a separate site. The war had delayed construction, and now post-war housing needs and various internal disagreements with the Technical College continued to delay the start of the new building. But the retirement of the long-standing head of Modelling & Metalwork, William Armstrong Davidson, gave the College the opportunity to split his post, ideally creating separate departments of Modelling & Sculpture and Jewellery & Metalwork. But the SED (the Scottish Education Department, which funded the four art colleges in Scotland) was reluctant to allow Dundee to have a fully-fledged Sculpture department, and permitted only a temporary instructor in Modelling. Sutherland’s appointment in 1947 to this temporary post would end up lasting 28 years.
At that time Dundee was the only one of the four art colleges that wasn’t able to offer a Diploma in Sculpture. Sutherland’s first task, therefore, was to create such a course, and persuade the SED to fund it. He succeeded in 1950, and Kenneth Myles became its first graduate two years later. During his post-diploma year Myles created a bust of ‘Scotty’, as generations of students would go on to call him.
One factor that may have helped persuade the SED to fund the Diploma was the Commando Memorial commission. In 1949 Sutherland had won the national competition to create the memorial, and several of his students (including Myles) would help him realise it in the studios in Bell Street over the next few years. It was unveiled in 1952 on a site overlooking the wartime Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry.
Scott Sutherland in his trademark polo neck sweater working on the details of the Commando Memorial in the Dundee studio. The statue was cast by HH Martyn in Cheltenham.
Several other important commissions followed, including the coat of arms above the entrance to the National Library of Scotland in 1956 and the Black Watch Memorial outside Dundee in 1959. He also became renowned during this period for doing public demonstrations of head modelling. One of his most notable former students, Alastair Ross, who later joined him on the staff, remembers: “He was a man of very few words, but he was a brilliant demonstrator”. A later student, Doug Cocker, recalls a one-to-one demo – “I was, and still remain, astonished at the speed and focus of his execution. He said little and it was left to me to grasp the process… It was very intense and somewhat overwhelming though I was conscious I was witnessing very special skill, executed with a surprising degree of physicality.”
There are many stories about Scotty from his former students. Design student Dale Downie (who enrolled in 1953) told me about his first lesson from Sutherland: “Scott introduced himself and said ‘At the end of four years, if you’re very lucky we’ll give you a bit of paper…and on it it has Diploma in Art,” and he said “it’s exactly what it says – a DA – and that means Damn All! You’re only as good as your next job.’”
The sculptor David Annand (who enrolled in 1966), recalls: “He was very rude and swore a lot, which we all enjoyed… He was a terrific and dedicated craftsman who loved tools and making them. He could make his own stone carving chisels and showed us how to temper them at the tip for different grades of stone… He taught us always to get back from the work when we were modelling from life and to keep the piece moving round and be aware of all three dimensions. The model was on a turntable and our stands could rotate too. If you didn’t do this he would resort to violence!! He had a length of copper pipe, he would roll [up a] tiny ball of clay and using this blow pipe hit you smack on the back of the neck with a stinger! It was deadly accurate and sore. This resulted in the students all arming themselves with blow pipes and having battles round the department”.
Sutherland was a talented fiddler and an amateur boxer, and was equally willing to provide his students with demonstrations of both. Drawing & Painting student Dick Hunter (who enrolled in 1952) described him as “an ebullient character” who “wasn’t shy of punching”students to get their attention. Similarly, Frances Pelly (who came in 1965) recalled: “If Scotty thought you were being too precious about what you had created and it needed correcting, he would ‘accidentally’ box your work with his elbow!”
In 1955, the first wing of the new Art College building on Perth Road was finally completed and Sutherland’s department (as the one most in need of greater space) was the first to move in. In 1960, he succeeded in extending the Sculpture Diploma to five years. Alastair Ross recalls this as “a source of great pride in Dundee… It was that final year that made all the difference… it allowed for a wider and deeper range of training”. As part of that wider range, in 1962 Sutherland won a Leverhulme travel grant to visit ceramics departments in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. This enabled him to introduce Pottery as part of the Sculpture diploma, with Donald Logie employed to teach it. Sutherland also soon gained other colleagues, as Alastair Smart and Alastair Ross both joined his team to teach Sculpture and Modelling.
The expansion of the department left him less time to devote to his own work, but he still managed a steady stream of public commissions, including a bust of Admiral Cochrane for the naval base near Rosyth in 1968 (HMS Cochrane) and later relocated to Culross); a memorial to Hercules Linton (designer of the Cutty Sark) in Inverbervie in 1969; a leaping salmon sculpture for General Accident in Perth in 1971; and a plaque for the memorial to Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding in Moffat in 1972.
He also created various carved inscriptions. Alastair Ross noted that “He was one of the rare sculptors who had an equal reputation as a carver [the reductive process] and modeller [the building-up process]”. Examples include the memorial for the crew of the lifeboat Mona, unveiled in Broughty Ferry in 1962, and the memorial for those who lost their lives during the construction of the Tay Road Bridge, from 1966.
Sutherland’s last major contribution to Duncan of Jordanstone was planning the much enlarged sculpture studios (still in use today) that were included in a major extension to the College, the Matthew Building, which opened in 1975, the year he retired.
His traditional skills-based approach may have been increasingly out of fashion, but an extraordinary number of notable sculptors graduated in his last few years, including David Annand, Stan Bonnar, Doug Cocker, Frances Pelly and Alan Beattie Herriot, all of whom have gone on to major national or international careers in public sculpture. Their opinions on how his teaching inspired them differ enormously – for Herriot, he was a significant and direct influence, as can clearly be seen in his own work, particularly his war memorials. Frances Pelly told me: “I owe my career to the very practical grounding that Scotty and other[s]…gave us.” For Cocker, he was someone to react against – his restrictive views on sculpture “served to confirm my desire to find my own language. But I also took on board his respect for skill and craft plus the need to put in the hours.” Bonnar was perhaps the furthest removed from Sutherland’s ideas and his environmental installation left him baffled. Bonnar recalls: “I remember trying to talk with Scotty about where I was coming from conceptually. He simply didn’t get it; and after I had spoken for a bit about the thinking behind the work, his (only) contribution to the discussion… was, ‘…or you could just be mad.’”
In his later years, Sutherland was plagued with ill health. A lifelong smoker, he developed asthma late in life – it was treated with steroids that had severe side-effects. His tenacity was remarkable – his daughter Catherine recalls that in his final years “he had to literally haul himself up the stairs to his studio to continue working”. When it became impossible to work in stone or bronze, he turned to wood carving instead. In his early 70s, he accidentally severed a tendon in his arm with a chisel. His daughter Catherine remembers: “It was too dangerous to open up the whole arm, so Dad was offered a choice of two permanent positions for his thumb; he chose the one which would enable him to continue to work with clay!”
Today, Sutherland’s legacy is starting to be recognised once again. A group of volunteers from Royal Marine Association and Commando Association is aiming to create a Commando Memorial Heritage Trail of plaques placed at locations relating to Sutherland and the Commando Memorial, the first of which is due to be sited very soon at Spean Bridge adjacent to the Commando Memorial Gardens. Related to this, Alan Herriot, a student of Scotty, has agreed to recreate one of Sutherland’s original sculptures, the leaping salmon originally sited in Perth but sadly vandalised. The new work, based on the original maquette, will be placed outside the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry, close to the Commandos ’training ground. So hopefully Sutherland’s name and his significance as an artist and teacher will start to become better known again.
Curator – Museum services
University of Dundee