Terry Frost in His Own Words
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
In this article we look at the work of Sir Terry Frost, one of Britain's greatest abstract painters in his own words and of those around him. We look at his mentors and how his work was constantly moved on by nature he observed and his peers. In a career that spanned six decades he led the development of post war abstraction in St Ives in the face of Modern British Art, American Abstract Expressionist, Pop Art and latterly the YBA's.
His works were widely celebrated in 2015 being the Centenary of his birth, with a number of important retrospectives in St Ives, Leeds and his home town of Leamington Spa, where a new park is to be named after him, with benches, planting and a design that refects his most well known works.
Post war & Art School
Terry Frost, a largely instinctual painter, was introduced early on to cubist ideas by one of his teachers, Victor Pasmore, but he felt a greater affinity with Juan Gris and Raymond Duchamp-Villon's approach to the canvas than that of Picasso at the time. However, it was Picasso's continuous line drawing of Igor Stravinsky of the early 1920's which exercised a singular fascination for him, this was to be a lifelong preoccupation with the emotional power of the drawn line, and the ways to control it. In early works he was already exploring lines, generating and defining shapes: the curve, circles, angles and arabesque. These created rhythm, counterpoint, interruption and repetition - concepts which he would then spend the next sixty years developing.
Nature was an ongoing, and enduring, influence. During his time as a POW in 1943 all he could see from his prison window was a solitary tree. "I used to feast my eye on that one bit of nature, and I started to draw it". See Art Class by Terry Frost from Stalag 383.
Although in the midst of British Modernism, Terry Frost found himself attracted to an earlier period and in another country - Russia in 1917 after the revolution - where there was a similar feeling of equality that was felt in Britain after WWII.
He said "The Russian Constructivist movement was very much a force on us. In that revolutionary moment, they were thinking they were making a new art for the people, they had terrific structure, wonderful design that went through their ceramics and every medium. Rodchenko's photography, and El Lissitsky's typography were absolutely fantastic in that period." - See Image.
After art school, Terry Frost was part of the pioneering generation of British abstract artists closely associated with St Ives, that formed during the 1950's. Others included Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron. Their group was characterised by their strongly individual non-figurative painting, sadly their rise was overshadowed by world-wide interest in firstly on the New American Painting (Rothko, Pollock, de Koonig etc) and then in the 1960's by the emergence in Pop Art in the UK. The Group only received serious attention again after the "St Ives: 25 years of painting, sculpture and pottery" Exhibition at the Tate in 1985.
Arguably Terry Frost is one of the most daring and exciting of the group, willing to go further in his concepts and developing them over a number of years (Boats, Suns/Circles, Spirals etc). We're have two main influences on his career to thank for this: Adrian Heath, who introduced Frost to painting in a POW camp and then Barbara Hepworth, for whom he worked as an assistant for a year after his first attempt to get a place at art college. Whilst there making "something actual" Frost started making his own mobiles and constructions, three dimensional pieces would then feature throughout his career, and as with printmaking (linocuts and etchings) the concepts would feed his painting (and vice versa).
Further input and encouragement came from Ben Nicholson whose classical training gave Frost a firm foundation in order and discipline. It was Ben Nicholson who helped him obtain his first studio in St Ives, adjacent to his in Porthmeor. Terry Frost always saw colour and shape in an imaginative way, his work mirrors what he sees and makes us all become more aware of shapes and colours we would otherwise easily overlook.
Adrian Heath describes Terry Frost's painting style as Romantic as opposed to Classical, based on the fact that Frost's paintings expressed "emotion over reason", and that in his work was "direct and spontaneous action produced more authentic results than calculation or planning". Terry Frost famously disliked the rigour of life drawing at art college, where the model would hold the same position each day, the artist would return to his/her marked spot so that reference points would correlate from one session to another. This "search for truth" was not an approach Frost could follow, he needed more expression/imagination. Victor Pasmore suggested that Frost would learn more from visiting museums and galleries than at college to "steep yourself in the best art and artefacts you can find".
Here we have his own words describing his development of some of his first abstractions, the Movement paintings of 1951-53 (See 'Green Movement' image):
"I had seen a number of evenings looking out over the harbour at St Ives. Although, I had been observing a multiplicity of movement during these evenings, they all evoked a common emotion or mood - a state of delight in front of nature. On one particular blue twilit evening, I was watching what can only be described as a synthesis of movement. That is to say the rise and fall of the boats, the space drawing of the mastheads, the opposing movements of the incoming sea and out blowing offshore wind - all this plus the predominant feel of blue in the evening and the static brown of the foreshore, generated an emotional state, which was to find expression in 'Blue Movement'."
"In this painting I was trying to give expression to my total experience of that particular evening. I was not portraying the boats, the sand, the horizon or any other subject matter, but concentrating on the emotion engendered by what I saw. The subject matter is in fact the emotion evoked by the movements and the colour in the harbour. What I have painted is an arrangement of form and colour which evokes for me a similar feeling".
Whilst the inspiration was Romantic, the development of the painting was quite Classical, involving initial linear drawings, a small monochrome painting, a series of linocuts and a smaller version on canvas.
St Ives was so important to Terry Frost throughout his career, he even put 'SS' in many paintings and prints, not only because the shapes the two letters formed pleased him, but it is also the reference letters for fishing boats based in St Ives - See SS St Ives, 1966.
['SS' is the title given to the last portfolio of prints he produced in 2003.]
Leeds then Back to St Ives
If St Ives provided Terry Frost with a new vocabulary of bright primary colours, shapes and movement, then his move to Leeds in 1954, for his Gregory Fellowship, brought what he described as "the true experience of black and white in Yorkshire". This introduced a new austerity and simplification to his work, an example of which is this experience during a walk in the Wolds:
"It was a clear bright day and I looked up and saw a Naples yellow blinding circle spinning on top of black verticals. The sensation was true, I was spellbound and of course when I tried to look again it was gone, just a sun and a copse on the brow of a hill covered in snow.....so I came back and painted 'Red Black and White', 1956 - see image.
He returned to St Ives, largely free of teaching, and signed to Waddington Galleries, and so started a further period of prolific non-figuration spurred on by a stimulating and provocative dialogue with Roger Hilton, and visits to Paris galleries and the exhibitions of the American Abstract Expressionists at the Tate and Whitechapel Galleries.
In 1954, he said "Seeing is a matter of looking and feeling, for things do not look exactly like you think they do. To look with preconceived notions of visual experience is to destroy the possibility of creating again that experience in paint. If you know before you look, then you cannot see for knowing"
Frost was able to explore American Abstraction further during his first exhibition in New York (1960) when he also had the opportunity to meet local artists including Mark Rothko, Walter de Koonig, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. Rothko and others had already visited St Ives in 1958 and met with Frost and his peers (see photo of Frost and Rothko having lunch in Penzance in 1958 - both far right). These meetings allowed a particularly rich period of invention and questioning for Terry Frost, who did not react immediately to these new experiences.
He said "I did'nt come back and just paint the picture. I was never able to do that. I never wished to do that. I always have to absorb the moments and let them go for I have to make the idea, the discovery. Sometimes I go for a couple of years before I can get clean as it were and discover the moment again in paint". He was always his own man.
Frost questioned balance and harmony, about economy and prolixity, graphic lines and sensuous colouring. Additionally his works exploit the asymmetry of the essential number three. Not only the three principal elements of abstract art - form, line, colour, but also three dynamic fields in the composition or three motifs in tension.
At around this time (1962), Terry Frost started adding collage and even laces to his canvasses, see Laced Grace (oil, canvas, collage, cord on canvas) and other related pieces. He said "I did a whole series of laced paintings in gouache, on canvas and in lithograph, I think I was trying to tighten the form. I remember thinking I would like to use a spanner". See "May 1962 (Stays).
"I had two semi-circles or half semi-circles collated on and they always made a tension between each other, so much so that I decided to tighten them up. I laced them up and pulled them tight so they could not escape this tension. Like sails pulling against the wind and my grandmother's stays".
Tight-laced is an expression meaning rigorous self-control, an artistic virtue in classical terms, but which here Frost symbolises by using the actual object through which the tightness is achieved: The lace.
The 70's would be a period in which Terry Frost rediscovered colour, maybe from his teaching or through a reassessment of the work of his favourite artists: such as Matisse, Delaunay and Leger.
Paintings such as Yellow Moonship 1974 (see image) and July Jungle 1972-74 exemplify this. In 1977 Terry Frost had a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, which then toured the country, and which received much acclaim at the the time, including a BBC2 interview from the artist's studio.
It was also a period in which he explored colour: Through Blues 1969, Through Blacks 1975, Through Yellows 1975 and also Through Whites, 1981.
As a professor of Painting at Reading University he would typically set his students exercises in laying out different blacks on a white sheet of paper. The purpose in this was to sharpen their visual awareness and to make them realise that even a so called 'dead' colour like black could be produced in a surprisingly wide tonal range from other colours, from a cold bluish black to a warm red black.
Marina Vaizey (The Times art critic) wrote in 1982 "What comes across most strongly is an exuberant pleasure in the possibilities open to serious play with colour and shape. Compositions are effectively striking, delightfully memorable. Terry Frost's art is one of celebration, not lamentation, vigorous, optimistic, dashing, beguiling. Apparently simple, surprisingly subtle, and very satisfying to look at, and to enjoy."
Lorca and Cyprus
Terry Frost was widely read, and enjoyed poetry, particularly the work of Federico Garcia Lorca. This might be surprising given his dark, sometimes despairing poems. His themes were violence, death and darkness as often as passion and life.
"I've been in love with Lorca's poetry for 15 years" Frost wrote in 1989, when he produced the Lorca Suite of etchings, after years of working on paintings and editions with Lorca in mind. See Black for Lorca, lithograph 1990.
During his teaching visits to Cyprus in the 1980's Frost was excited by the brilliant light and intense colour of the rising and setting sun and moon in that latitude, that he embarked on a series of paintings in which glowing oranges and reds predominate.
He said "A circle means so much to me; it's become like a god. I can use it in any colour I want, and often I use it in black, because I think a black sun is beautiful".
See 'Necklace Around the Sun', oil on canvas 1992.
Even in his late seventies and early eighties Terry Frost was brimming with new ideas, one inspired by a trip to Arizona was his use of spirals. His son took him to see the Grand Canyon: "there were cacti 14 feet high all in bloom, and wonderful mountains all around.
There were blue mountains, pink mountains, white mountains, double rainbows and thunder clouds! The whole thing was a spiral of excitement. So it started a relationship for me with the idea of foreverness." See Arizona Sprial 1990-94 and other paintings and prints.
As with many things, we come back, full circle, to the start: In his 2003 Tate Retrospective, Terry Frost was asked to select works from the Tate's collection to be shown alongside his works; he chose Malevich's Black Square 1915.
Ronnie Duncan stated in 1990 "Frost's oeuvre will, I believe, come to occupy an important place in the history of English abstract art of the second half of the 20th century"...Prophetic words indeed.
At Zimmer Stewart Gallery, we will continue to exhibit and stock a number of rare and not often seen studies, paintings, collages and prints by Terry Frost from 1947 to 2003, including the 'Madron Blue' etchings with aquatint from 1997, created at Orchard Farm, Madron, where at he worked closely with Hugh Stoneman of Stoneman Graphics on so many of his best series of prints.
Adrian Heath, forward to "Terry Frost: Painting in the 1980's" - The University of Reading, 1986
Ronnie Duncan, introduction to "Terry Frost: Paintings 1948 to 1989" - The Mayor Gallery, 1990
Terry Frost: Works on paper 25 Years, 1947-72 - Austin/Desmond Fine Art
Terry Frost: Paintings and Collages - Rufford Art Centre 1982
Norbert Lynton, forward to Terry Frost: 1915-2003 Works from the Estate, Beaux Arts
Mel Gooding, forward to Terry Frost: Black White and Red, Tate St Ives, 2003
Andrew Lambirth, forward to Terry Frost: An exhibition of works from the Estate spanning 60 years, 2008.
Martin Gayford, forward to Terry Frost: A lover of life, Beaux Arts 2010.
"Nine Abstract Artists" by Lawrence Alloway 1954