Terry Frost – his skill and artistic legacy

Terry Frost – his skill and artistic legacy

Sir Terry Frost  RA (13 October 1915 – 1 September 2003) – playful, alive, colourful & fun

I cannot now remember when I first encountered a piece of art by Frost. I do remember the vibrancy of the colour and the freedom of the form. Here – I sensed – was energy and life. His pictures of the sea and boats inspired by Cornwall remain iconic images of British modern art.

This deep attraction and inspiration was nurtured by an exhibition at the University of Warwick in the late nineties followed by a stunning curating of his work at the Royal Academy in 2000 – ‘Terry Frost, Six Decades’. I believe that it would be hard to overestimate his art or his influence. It would be an undiscerning eye that might be tempted to dismiss his creative eye as naive or lacking generativity.

The St Ives School

It was Frost who led me into discovering the St Ives School of Artists. Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson opened up new vistas of adventure – their lives were almost as interesting as their art ! Their journey of discovery for inspiration led them into Europe as they visited the studios of PabloPicasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp. The work of Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian shaped ideas and techniques. These visits were hugely influential and Hepworth took back many radical ideas and techniques to her studio in Cornwall, changing the course of her sculptural practice.

I’m interested in locating the holy grail of the minimum means to express the most complex ideas.”
— Ben Nicholson

and Lanyon reminds us of the visceral relationship between creation and creator

“It is impossible for me to make a painting which has no reference to the powerful environment in which I live.”
— Peter Lanyon

Light and Landscape

This sets the scene for Frost. Born in the Midlands the main body of his work was inspired by his home in Newlyn, Cornwall. It was this geography that provided the inspiration of light, colour and shape that shaped his work. Over these decades of prolific output it was Frost who became a leading exponent of abstract art. His body of paintings have inspired many.

The artistic journey of Frost and his work is fascinating recorded in illuminating detail by Tom Cross ( Painting the warmth of the Sun : St Ives Artists 1939-1975). We catch a sense of the struggle of the artist and the landscape. In this we become aware of the sheer effort and discipline needed. So Ben Nicholson advises Frost

‘you can have great ideas, great imagination but I do think you need the discipline to obtain the freedom to do what you want to do and without that discipline you will never have freedom, it’s as simple as that’ (page 69).

Frost explores the relationship between abstraction and figuration with characteristic humility and honesty

‘I am now mixing, or should I say I am able to work on representational and abstract art. For one thing I did not know that I had any real imagination or deep subjective feeling and I have been able to develop the senses enormously stop now I have to battle on and find the method in which I can express all these emotions best. Whether it be by abstract or representation remains to be seen’.

I bought my first Frost from a small gallery in Warwickshire where the owner had a great gift for telling the story of each piece of Art. She had visited Frost in Cornwall and enthused about his ability to see things freshly.  She believed (with others ) that Frost had the rare gift of seeing things freshly, as if for the first time. Frost would often say – ‘if you know before you look, you can’t see from knowing’

In these paintings there is ever present a deep sense of wonderment. The artist worked with his heart as well as his hands

‘ It’s elemental. I stand on the moors here and when the wind is blowing and you get the music in the long grasses in your ears, you definitely feel that you’ve been here for millions of years you know that. Don’t feel alone and so the circle and the landscape are valuable to me in giving me strength just trust my imagination more than anything’

Walk along the Quay 1951

This is what Frost says about this painting

‘In this painting I was trying to give expression to my total experience of that particular evening. I was not betraying the boats, the sand, the horizon or any other subject matter, but concentrating on the emotion engendered by what I saw in the harbour. What I have painted is an arrangement of form and colour, which evokes them the a similar feeling’

Blue Harbour

Listen to Frost again on the colour Black :

Black is the container of all colour. As the light fades, every colour disappears into black. Red goes first and they gradually all go into black. So from that idea of poetry I make my Blacks from red, yellow and blue. So you  make a black that suits the idea, the magic that suits the imagination – and what you’re trying to say. It’s not an ordinary black. You move it in the direction which you want. That is a very blue black, because that’s what I wanted for the particular painting. There was that marvellous moment of standing in front of the blue Harbour when everything is being absorbed by black and it just contains that little bit of colour in each black.

The best is yet to come

Frost continued to work well in his 70s and produced wonderful work. He would say that his memory had largely gone but that the imagination was working overtime. We are told that he talked with excitement about ellipses and eclipses, the sun, the moon and the stars with excitement, rage, joy, honesty, and also deadly seriousness.

Enjoy this –

Necklace Around the Sun oil on canvas 1992.

Here is a spectacular demonstration and ability to take the visual elements of everyday experience and transform them into brilliant configurations of shape and colour on a flat surface.

You can see more images of Frost as a share a picture a day during October 2021 via Twitter (@R_C_Woodward )

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