Magazine article The Spectator

Brave New World

Magazine article The Spectator

Brave New World

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

Terry Frost (Royal Academy, till 12 November)

Terry Frost: Recent paintings (Beaux Art, Cork Street, till 18 November) week or two ago I met Sir Terry

Frost to do an interview, and he described to me how the evening before he had gone into his favourite bar on Cork Street and ordered his favourite drink (a bottle of champagne and a pint of Guinness). Then, as any of us might, he had doubts about his ability to finish it up - since he had forgotten he had no company. Almost immediately a friend turned up and kindly helped him out with the embarrassment of Black Velvet.

It's a tiny story, but it tells you a good deal about the man - his joie de vivre, his exuberance, the energy that has still not flagged at the age of 85, his generosity of spirit. All of these qualities are also evident in his paintings, which are on show at the Royal Academy and at the Beaux Art (recent paintings),

Frost is now the senior figure among those British artists who turned towards abstraction in the years after the war, and one of the surviving pillars of the St Ives community of modernists (of which he says in the catalogue to the RA show, `Nobody thought we were a group. We had continual arguments, pretty vicious at times'). These exhibitions - although the RA show is not perfect, the Sackler Galleries being too small to attempt a survey of a career now six decades long - give an opportunity to assess his art.

One of the first points to leap to the eye is how concrete, for an abstract painter, his references to the everyday world often are. The RA exhibition begins with a preabstract Frost, studying art at Camberwell in the years after the war. He can be seen in a `Self-Portrait' of 1948-49 - a solemn bearded figure, somewhere between Henri Matisse and Eric Gill in appearance, and already into his thirties.

Frost was a late starter as an artist, having done a variety of industrial and retail jobs, and served in the army, before he decided to become a painter while a POW in Stalag 383. Some of the first Frosts have distinct post-war look, `Battersea Park' (1947) having a touch of Victor Pasmore's Thames-side landscapes, and `Miss Humphries', the - from the look of her long-suffering life room model at Camberwell looks a little Ronald Searle-ish.

Soon, however, he followed Pasmore into the brave new world of abstraction (then, though it is hard to believe now, a leap that required real courage for a British artist). But Frost's early abstracts are based firmly in landscape. `Madrigal', his very first, is an industrial scene, inspired by an Auden poem (another point that emerges from these shows is how important literature has been to him, Garcia Lorca being a later love).

`Walk Along the Quay' (1950), one of a group of paintings of the same title that marked Frost's real breakthrough, is about just what it says: the experience of strolling down the quay at St Ives, looking not up at the sky and horizon, but down at the boats bobbing in the harbour. The resulting pictures are upright, with the end of the quay at the top, like aerial photographs, and divided into a patchwork of coloured squares and semicircles. The objective, he said at the time, was not to paint the fishing craft and water, but the sensation they gave him. However a real experience, as quite often with Frost, lay at the beginning. …

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