THIS week sees the centenary of the birth of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the greatest of all Scottish artists and a hugely influential figure in the 20th-century Pop Art movement.

I do hope the media will mark his centenary not least because the National Galleries of Scotland are doing him proud with a free-to-enter exhibition now running at Modern Two in Edinburgh, and that more Scots will be encouraged to find out about this remarkable man who was born Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi on Friday, March 7, 1924, in Leith.

His parents were two immigrants from Italy, Rodolfo and Carmela, who ran a small ice cream parlour in the port and brought up their son to be bilingual. He also regularly visited the home of his grandparents near Monte Cassino. Educated at Holy Cross Academy, Paolozzi showed an early interest in drawing sketches and collecting images from a wide variety of sources – it would remain a lifelong passion.

It was expected that he would join the family business, but the Second World War intervened. When Italy declared war on Britain, Paolozzi was interned as an enemy alien for three months in Saughton Prison.

The National: Real Gold by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

During his time there his family suffered a tragedy when his father, grandfather and uncle, who had also been interned, were killed when the Arandora Star, the ship taking them to internment in Canada, was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic on July 2, 1940.

Paolozzi then did help his mother run the parlour, but in 1943 he began evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art. He had always been interested in drawing and felt he could become a commercial artist.

Having earlier been classed as an enemy alien he was conscripted in 1943 and joined the Pioneer Corps. He feigned mental illness to get out of the Corps and then briefly attended St Martin’s School of Art before enrolling at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art at University College London – it had been evacuated to Oxford – in 1944.

He became increasingly influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso and surrealists, especially Dada, and began to develop his own collage technique, turning the ephemera of everyday life into artworks. He was soon recognised as a consummate draughtsman and he also began to produce sculptures which in time would be his main field of work.

The National:

His most famous early piece of art was a collage entitled I Was A Rich Man’s Plaything – the first artwork anywhere to actually feature the word “pop” – which he produced in 1947, the same year he had his first solo exhibition at the Mayor Gallery

in London.

Every one of his exhibits was sold and with the proceeds of that exhibition he was able to go to Paris where he lived for two years, meeting all the major figures in the contemporary arts. On his return to London in 1949, Paolozzi briefly shared a studio with Lucian Freud before linking up with the experimental photographer Nigel Henderson to set up a business called Hammer Prints. He also taught at the Central School of Art.

At the same time he was helping to found the Independent Group, an association of artists that would be heavily influential in the Pop Art movement.

His output became prolific and featured at the Festival of Britain, the Venice Biennale, and in exhibitions in Germany and the USA. The remarkable sculptures he produced brought him fame, as did his mosaics for the Tottenham Court Road underground station.

The National: Eduardo Paolozzi - Improved Beans

Britain in the 1960s was a transformational time, and Paolozzi was in the vanguard of contemporary art at that period with his surrealist sculptures and screen prints. He had a studio in Chelsea, now faithfully recreated in Modern Two in Edinburgh, but could also be found in docks and shipyards gathering metal objects for his sculptures which he often welded together at these locations.

In 1973, Paolozzi contributed to the artwork for the album Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney and Wings. McCartney later said of him: “I once visited his Chelsea studio and was impressed by his sense of humour, the twinkle in his eye and his generosity.”

Paolozzi once described his artistic inspiration: “I suppose I am interested, above all, in investigating the golden ability of the artist to achieve a metamorphosis of quite ordinary things into something wonderful and extraordinary.”

The National: PAOLOZZI PRINT: An Empire of Silly Statistics…A Fake War for Public Relations by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

Asked about his lifelong compulsion to hoard things, Paolozzi replied: “I have an African or Indian approach to what I find. I like to make use of everything. I can’t bear to throw things away – a nice wine bottle, a nice box. Sometimes I feel like a wizard in Toytown, transforming a bunch of carrots into pomegranates.”

Paolozzi spent a lot of time in Germany where his teaching was acclaimed. He was also hugely delighted to be asked to appear on Desert Island Discs in 1990. Interviewed by Sue Lawley, his choice of music was eclectic, ranging from the jazz guitar of Django Reinhardt to Mozart’s The Magic Flute with his luxury item a hurdy-gurdy.

Paolozzi formed long friendships with collectors such as Gabrielle Keiller of the famous Dundee preserves business, and his work was recognised by royal honours, being knighted in 1989 after his appointment as the Queen’s sculptor in ordinary for Scotland three years earlier.

Paolozzi was always happy to come to Edinburgh, where one of his most famous works was the giant sculpture for the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters. Eventually he donated 5000 items to the National Galleries of Scotland.

Paolozzi married textile designer Freda Elliot in 1951 and they had three daughters before they were divorced in 1988. His latter years were plagued by serious ill-health after a near-fatal stroke. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi died in London on April 22, 2005, aged 81.