Magazine article The Spectator

A Touch of Frost

Magazine article The Spectator

A Touch of Frost

Article excerpt

Terry Frost: A Painter's Life by Roger Bristow Sansom &Co, £30, pp. 253, ISBN 9781906593780 Spectator Bookshop, £27 Is there any such thing as abstract art?

Narratives and coherent harmonies seem to me always to emerge from the shapes and colours. Picasso's cubist planes, as critics have noticed, usually disclose wine bottles, mandolins and bread baskets upon a table - icons of his Catholic childhood. The red and black slabs of Mark Rothko are our planet as mapped from outer space. Jackson Pollock created mad spiders' webs. Klee is full of farmyard animals. Piet Mondrian's grids are Holland's dikes and polders.

Our own best abstract artist was Terry Frost. Here again the semicircles and thin looping lines are as representational, as ascertainable in the real world, as any horse by Stubbs or cloud by Constable. What looks like a geometric pattern has a local habitation and a name: St Ives, Cornwall. Frost's allegedly abstract pictures are arrangements of small fishing boats moored and rocking in the harbour, with the giant sun and moon and stars rising in the background.

If you want to see the curves as something more suggestive - as 'breasts and bottoms' say - or his chevrons as 'a graphic symbol of female cleavages, the vagina or even the act of penetration' (as Roger Bristow surmises), Frost probably wouldn't have complained. 'If you lose interest in flirting, ' he once said, 'you lose interest in life.' Somebody who'd have kept anyone's blood pressure on the boil was his neighbour in Cornwall (and my great chum - she's a Welsh Mistress Quickly), Molly Parkin. Molly looked at a Frost canvas and claimed to see not ships and ropes but the stylised female form. 'Is that me, flashing my tits or dropping my drawers?' she asked the artist. 'You did both, darling, ' Frost replied.

Boats, bottoms, what have you: when Frost first put his designs on the wall, Ben Nicholson said to him, 'You've got on to something that can last you the rest of your life.' Prescient words - and Frost lasted a long time, dying in a Penzance hospice in September 2003 at the age of 88, knighted and beloved and with an estate valued at £4 million.

He took a long time to get going, however. He was born in Leamington in 1915, the son of a cobbler. He left school at 14 with no qualifications, and got a job in a bakery decorating cakes. He also worked in a factory that made fluorescent light fittings.

He joined the Warwickshire yeomanry before the call-up, and painted identification roundels on the wings of planes manufactured in Coventry. War declared, Frost served in a cavalry unit in the Middle East, then trained as a commando, seeing action in Crete. He was captured and sent by cattle truck to a German prison camp, Stalag 383, at Hohenfels, Bavaria.

An inmate for three years, he spent his time painting portraits and landscapes, attending to the colours of birds and trees.

Upon his release, he grew a beard, wore sandals and a beret, and hiked to Cornwall:

'I had promised myself that I would paint.

I'd seen a lot of my mates killed. I'd seen all sorts of things. I thought that if I could survive as a prisoner of war, I could survive as an artist.' (How similar to the determination and ambition of Ronald Searle, another PoW English artist of genius who lived to a great age. …

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