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Terry Frost

 

Unusually for an artist whose career traversed seven decades, Frost was a late starter who attended art school in his mid-30s. But what he lacked in youth he gained in timing, leaving art school as British art began to engage with abstraction.

To become an abstract painter was a brave choice for a mature student with a family to support, but Frost found he could, with integrity, follow no other path. Although the establishment frowned upon the pure aesthetic - he forever recalled the vitriol with which his first show was greeted - there were sufficient numbers of young artists experimenting with non-representational art for Frost to feel in the vanguard of an exciting new movement.

Amidst this atmosphere of intellectual and artistic evangelism Frost pursued his own vision. His was not a resolutely theoretical art, concerned only with the internal coherence of the canvas, for Frost grounded his work in the real world and his own sensations and experiences.

Frost's paintings brimmed with colour and light and the pleasure of existence. This feeling he described as "a state of delight in front of nature" and his best paintings connected the viewer to the fount of the artist's inspiration. Although the revolutionary impact of abstract painting may have diminished over the course of his career, Terry Frost's own trajectory never faltered.

Terence Ernest Manitou Frost was born on October 13 1915 at Leamington Spa. He was brought up by his grandparents, who ran the last bath-chair business in the town. He was educated at Leamington Spa Central School where he edited the art magazine, but left at 15 to work in a cycle shop, an electrical wholesaler in Birmingham and at Armstrong Whitworth, where he painted the red, white and blue targets on to fighter planes.

During the Second World War Frost served in France, Palestine, Lebanon and, with the Commandos, in Sudan and Crete, where he was captured in June 1941. Interned at Stalag 383 in Bavaria he felt "a spiritual awakening . . . a heightened perception during starvation" and he met the artist Adrian Heath who encouraged his painting.

After the war he was rejected by art school for not having A-levels. But a chance meeting in a pub with a fellow prisoner who had become an educational officer gained Frost a place at Camberwell School of Art. Camberwell, famous for the rigidity of its tuition under William Coldstream and fellow travellers of the Euston Road School, had been suggested by Heath who felt Frost's innate enthusiasm would benefit from "a touch of Classical control".

By the time he started at Camberwell, Frost, at Heath's suggestion, had moved to St Ives, where an artistic community was encircling Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. If the intellectual ferment of St Ives was avant-garde, art school was not. Under Coldstream, Camberwell focused exclusively on life drawing executed with academic precision. It was Victor Pasmore, then undergoing a controversial "conversion" to non-representational painting, who liberated Frost when, having been shown the student's private work, told him: "Don't come in here anymore, go round the galleries."

The conscientious Frost did both, but learned more at the galleries. He became obsessed by Rubens's Judgment of Paris, seeing, for the first time, "a series of time-space-colour movements forming a structural continuity" - an abstract geometry of shapes that created an internal narrative to the painting. He realised that paintings could have a pictorial logic separate from their subject and began to feel that "painting a portrait or a flower piece . . . seemed to be a limit of conception or optimism. Everything suddenly began to open up".

After Camberwell, Frost returned to St Ives where he worked as Hepworth's assistant on Contrapuntal Forms (1951) for the Festival of Britain and became friendly with the shrewd Nicholson, who taught him about Cubism without ever committing anything to paper. Frost travelled to Paris to study with Roger Hilton, became friendly with Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron and continued to visit Pasmore and Heath. Poised at the centre of a debate about the nature, meaning and expectation of art, Frost was delighted to be surrounded by people who were "genuinely trying to do something".

His early work was figurative, though it included objects simplified into coloured shapes. His first non-representational work was Madrigal (1949), in which he conveyed emotion through a formal pictorial architecture of coloured rectangles, triangles and diamonds. The Principal at Camberwell observed that: "This kind of thing is all right, as long as it's not an end in itself." But for Frost it was.

Walk Along the Quay (top right) confirmed Frost's thesis that the interplay of colour and shape could realise an event or image more successfully than imitation. He later commented of the narrow picture, which Nicholson viewed speechlessly for two hours: "I just walked up the canvas with paint."

In 1952 Frost began teaching at the Bath Academy of Art and held his first one-man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries. The critics were divided, though Frost thought "the nastiest were always the bad figurative painters".

The following year he exhibited in Patrick Heron's Space in Colour exhibition in London. Frost delighted in his work but was always hoping to make enough money to free his wife from the drudgery of hotel bed-making. Once a Royal Academician said to him: "I get 75 for a head, 700 for a full-length body. Why waste your time on abstraction?"

In 1956 he moved to Yorkshire as Gregory Fellow at Leeds University, where works such as Blue Winter (1956) were inspired by Frost's professed desire to create an "abstract image-equivalence" for his experiences. The same year he was inspired by the Tate's show of the American Abstract Expressionists.

Frost could edge towards the representative, especially when painting nudes. Of the almost explicit Winter Nude (1959), painted after his return to St Ives, he said "occasionally my romantic side, my love-making side would take over".

Although Frost's work rejected specific images, gradually he was building a vocabulary of signs - chevrons, discs, crescents, arrowheads, lozenges, triangles, spirals, horizontal shafts - typified by M17, October 1962.

After a period as a visiting teacher at San Jose and Artist in Residence at Newcastle, Frost wanted to paint on a bigger canvas. In the famous Red, White and Black (1967), inspired by the Yorkshire moors, the two semi-circles were painted with the canvas on the floor and Frost standing over it, painting away from his body. He also painted on wood and, influenced by the Russian Constructivists, used collage in works such as SS99 (1962-3).

In 1974 Frost returned to Newlyn where he lived for the remainder of his life. He continued to travel, in 1976 with a one-man show that opened at the Serpentine Gallery; to Cyprus with the British Council; to Reading University, where he became Professor of Painting; and to Spain, his interest in which led him to illustrate 11 Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca (1989).

Black Sun (1978) and Blue for Newlyn (1989) were subjects that in different hands might have become gloomy, anxious or introspective, but for Frost were joyous affirmations of nature, of colour and of the former prisoner of war's overwhelming delight at survival. He saw himself as "a minimal artist and also a person who likes people and painting people".

He was elected a Royal Academician in 1992 and knighted in 1998.

He married Kathleen Clarke in 1945. They had five sons and one daughter.

 

Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 02/09/2003