WILLIAM McCANCE was born in Cambuslang in 1894, the seventh of eight

children. He studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1911-15, then took a

teacher-training course at Glasgow's Kennedy Street School. Instead of

going into teaching he spent his next years in a more unexpected manner

-- in prison as a conscientious objector.

On his discharge in 1920, he and his wife, the artist Agnes Miller

Parker, moved to London. McCance did some teaching and also found

employment as an art critic, writing a regular column for the Spectator.

His paintings of the 1920s occupy a special place in Scottish art, for

McCance was one of the few Scottish artists of the period to have

responded with imagination and vigour to the cubist, abstract and

machine-age styles which spread throughout Europe after the war.

One of his most remarkable paintings of the early 1920s is Heavy

Structures in a Landscape Setting, a vision of futuristic weapons

contained within a very unusual seven-sided framing device. He also

painted portraits, many of which depict figures reading -- no doubt

reflecting the artist's passion for writing and book design. The Gallery

of Modern Art owns a portrait of Joseph Brewer, an American who also

worked for the Spectator magazine. Painted in vivid reds, greens, and

violets, Brewer assumes the appearance of a robot with gleaming, tubular

neck and neatly articulated, mechanistic hands.

Through his writing and painting, McCance came into contact with many

leading artists and writers, including Stanley Spencer, T E Lawrence,

Edwin Muir and Francis George Scott. Like Muir and Scott, McCance became

involved in the Scottish Renaissance movement, then being orchestrated

by Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid was immensely impressed by McCance's

work, and in the mid-1920s entered into regular correspondence with him,

praising him as the most ''advanced'' Scottish artist of his day.

In 1930 McCance became controller of the renowned Gregynog Press in

Wales. This small private press produced superb, limited-edition books

featuring original wood-engravings, inventive typography, and unusual

bindings. McCance resigned in 1933 and the couple moved to a converted

windmill at Albrighton, near Wolverhampton.

Due to the heavy workload at Gregynog, he had stopped painting, but at

Albrighton he returned to writing -- not only about art but also about

economic theory, a subject close to his heart. In 1944 he and Agnesmoved

to Reading, where McCance was appointed lecturer in Typography and Book

Production at the university.

After the war he embarked upon a new series of paintings, his first

since the 1920s. Just as Heavy Structures in a Landscape Setting had

been conceived as an anti-war statement, so his paintings of the

mid-1940s responded to the horrors of the Second World War.

In Hiroshima, a figure derived from one of his own sculptures reclines

in the foreground next to an egg and flint, while in the distance a

darkened sun hangs heavily over an apoclyptic landscape. A neolithic

Venus figure appears in the opposite corner, symbol of the birth of

civilisation, now facing its greatest threat.

McCance and Miller Parker separated in 1955. McCance's first major

solo exhibition was held at Reading Museum in 1960 and featured over 200

items. He retired that same year and in 1963, following his marriage to

Dr Margaret Chislett, a colleague at the university, moved back to


The sheer range of his activities -- painting, printmaking,

book-design, sculpture, art criticism, teaching, economics and politics

-- meant that his achievement was never easily quantifiable, and when he

died in 1970 his position as one of the foremost modern Scottish artists

had been largely forgotten.

* Patrick Elliott is Assistant Keeper at the Scottish National Gallery

of Modern Art.