Patrick Heron, circa 1957-8, reproduced in Waddington Galleries, Four Middle Generation Painters, 1959.  Photograph by Brian Seed.
Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist.

In the 1950s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent two major surveys of American painting to the Tate Gallery in London: Modern Art in the United States in 1956 and The New American Painting in 1959. The 1956 exhibition featured just one room dedicated to artists of the ‘New York School’ – Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Still amongst them – whereas by 1959, the dominance of Abstract Expressionism as the form of American cultural expression seemed complete, with the seventeen painters and sculptors selected all closely allied with the image and idea of ‘Action Painting’ and the critical framework set out by Clement Greenberg.

The impact of these two exhibitions on artists in Britain and Europe (the 1959 show was to visit eight cities in total2 cannot be underestimated, especially for those studying at, or recently graduated from, the London art schools, which were beginning to turn out an exciting new generation of artists who would go on to achieve international success and acclaim in the 60s. However, for those artists a little further down the path of their careers – the likes of Alan Davie, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and William Scott – these exhibitions carried little or nothing of the ‘shock of the new’. Their engagement with the latest trends in both American and European avant-garde thought stretched back into the late 40s: by 1956, Scott and Davie had already held solo shows at two of New York’s leading galleries of contemporary art, with Lanyon having 7 works in a group show at the Passendoit Gallery in 1953; Davie had known the work of Pollock and Rothko for the best part of a decade, since seeing Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Venice in 1948; Heron had written extensively on the current art scene in both New York and Paris; and Hilton, having lived in Paris both before and after the War, was exploring a rough and ready Neo-Plasticism, comparable in feel to the work of Clyfford Still, along with the Dutch CoBrA painter Constant.

What was important, however, was the scale and ambition of American art. This was the real inspiration – an affirmation that abstraction could become an irresistible force when writ large. As Heron noted in his review of the 1956 exhibition: ‘I was instantly elated by the size, energy, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings. Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt, as did their flatness, or rather their spatial shallowness’. Yet despite his unalloyed enthusiasm, Heron says that we shall watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments’ – in other words, the Old World is still on a par with the New – whilst, very significantly ‘not forgetting our own’.3 Despite its grandeur and scale, American art – for Heron and other British abstract artists of his generation – was very much part of a continuity of ideas in which they were already deeply engaged.

In his forward to the 1959 Tate exhibition, Alfred J. Barr, MoMA’s Director, in paying homage to the diversity of American painting, asked: ‘How could canvases differ more in form than Kline’s broad, slashing blacks do from Rothko’s dissonant mists, or Pollock’s Dionysiac perpetuum mobile from Newman’s single, obsessive, vertical line? What then unites these paintings?’4 And yet these questions could just as easily be applied to the differing tendencies of British and European abstraction at the time – especially in British art, with our native distrust of manifestos and dogma leading to all sorts of fissures and bleeds. How did the artists of the later 1940s and 1950s achieve so much, regardless of their origin, and why are we still so keen to compartmentalise them by ‘schools’ and in particular national and regional groupings? Were they not all part of an international avant-garde, pushing towards new frontiers, with a shared belief in the possibilities and potential of painting?

The march of communications in recent decades has made contemporary art into a global entity. It is now phenomenally easy to draw immediate and detailed comparisons between artists from across every continent and we assume that, as a matter of course, such knowledge is there for all. This makes it all the harder for today’s audience to consider a time when your ability as a painter or sculptor to know what your peers in other countries were doing was severely limited. Yet for artists in the Post-War period, this was the case. In Britain, in particular the privations of six years of war had taken their toll. Dedicated arts publications were few and far between, and of course most illustrations would be in black and white. Virtually no institutional collections had a strong focus on contemporary art, although there were a surprising number of enterprising exhibitions if you were lucky enough to live near one of the more adventurous public galleries, such as the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s then-deprived and run-down East End (Pollock’s first major show in London was held here in 1957). And of course there were a handful of commercial galleries, such as Erica Brausen’s Hanover, showing new art from overseas, usually for little financial reward. Foreign currency restrictions also made travel abroad to Europe a very spartan affair, assuming you could afford to go in the first place. Involvement in contemporary art, either as a practitioner, collector or simple aficionado, was definitely a labour of love.

Patrick Heron, Clement Greenburg and John Wells at Mousehole, September 1959.  Photograph by Jenny Greenburg.
Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Heron.

For the artists represented in this catalogue, engagement with avant-garde ideas came about in various ways. For Alan Davie, winning a travelling scholarship allowed him and his new wife Bili to leave Britain in April 1948 bound for Europe. They hitched and walked first to Paris, and then on through various cities, sights and adventures to Italy. Rome he disliked intensely, but within days of arriving in Venice he found himself in the midst of the first Biennale since the War and, by even greater fortune, it included an exhibition of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in the Greek Pavilion (the Greeks were absent, engaged in a civil war). In December that year, inspired by the city and his travels and feeling that it was possible to make art his life, Davie held a small one-man exhibition at the Galleria Sandri. Guggenheim visited the show, and bought Music of the Autumn Landscape. Writing in 1951, she recalled ‘...while I was crossing the Campo Manin, I saw, in the window of the Galleria Sandri, an exciting painting by a young Scotsman named Alan Davie. I could hardly believe my eyes. It seemed to me so out of place in old Venice’.5

Invited by his new patron to see her collection of contemporary American painting, Davie would have been one of the first European artists to come across the early works of Pollock and Rothko, although both artists’ work at this time was deeply European in tone, as the arrival of many of the leading figures of the Surrealist movement in New York during the War had left a deep mark on American artists’ outlook. For Davie such a connection must have made perfect sense, in the light of his own early fascination with the work of Paul Klee and his own experiments in creating a form of automatic-writing out of semiabstract hieroglyphs.

Peter Lanyon, like Davie, was drawn to Italy and one senses that, whereas Paris had been very much the be-all and end-all of the art world prior to 1939, after the War new thriving centres of artistic activity were now springing up across Europe. Lanyon knew parts of Italy from his wartime service, and made a number of visits during the 1950s, including the Venice Biennale in 1950, where paintings by de Kooning, Pollock and Gorky were hung in the American pavilion. His association with one of London’s most interesting contemporary galleries, Gimpel Fils (run by two brothers from Paris), would have also provided a route by which he could have come to know his continental contemporaries (he became good friends with the Italian abstract painter Afro), and indeed Lanyon was included in London- Paris at the Institute of Contemporary Art in March 1950 alongside Bazaine, Richier and Ubac.

In the late 1930s, William Scott and his wife Mary, and a fellow artist Geoffrey Nelson, had run a painting school in Pont-Aven in Brittany (where they met the aged followers of Gauguin, Maurice Denis and Emile Bernard), only to be forced to flee with the invasion of France. After 1945 Scott again was able to visit France and his work was included in several shows of pan-European painting. His first major engagement with American art was to come about with a visit to New York in 1953. In those days, a trip to America was a great luxury, requiring either the four-day liner crossing or the long and expensive flight (BOAC passenger jets would not fly the route non-stop until 1958) and thus on his return his first-hand account of the New York contemporary scene was vital in the dissemination of American ideas amongst his circle of friends. He had met writers and critics, notably Clement Greenberg, as well several of the ‘New York School’ artists, meetings which would yield some long-term friendships, especially with Rothko. As Heron expressed in his review of the 1956 Tate show, it was the scale of American art that was important for Scott: his experience of it important, not so much for direct influences, but in the way it helped him to understand the differences between their work and his own.6 James Johnson Sweeney had already bought Yellow and Black Composition for the Guggenheim Museum from Scott’s 1953 exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, and the following year he was included in an important selling exhibition alongside Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth at Martha Jackson’s New York gallery (with Jackson becoming his long-term dealer).

Scott’s meeting with Greenberg was to have particular ramifications for Patrick Heron. Although well-established as a painter, Heron was probably better known in the early 1950s as a critic, and his incisive and well-considered writings on contemporary art from this period still look remarkably prescient. Scott’s account of meeting Greenberg formed an introduction for Heron and the two initially found common ground in their substantial understanding and knowledge of European modernism and formed a friendship that would last throughout the 1950s although it would sour into the 1960s as the two former friends traded insults over the precise nature of the relationship between British and American abstraction.

Like Scott, Heron had extensive knowledge and experience of the European scene, especially that of Paris, and had written a great deal on both the older painters such as Braque, Picasso and Matisse as well as the younger generations, including Soulages and de Stael. Whereas his contemporaries, and especially Lanyon and Scott, felt their relationship to abstraction to be fluid to say the least, Heron was perhaps at his best as an artist when investigating the potential of colour and its relationships to the liberation of art from the strictures of subject and regulation.

3 British Artists: Hepworth, Scott, Bacon at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, October – November 1954.  William Scott’s Grey, Black and White Forms, 1953 is on the right.  Courtesy of William Scott Foundation.

It was Heron who first drew the attention of a wider audience to the work of Roger Hilton, who was an important figure in the London art scene of the 50s not only for his fiercely distinctive painting style, but also because he brought another strand of European experience to his British contemporaries.7 Hilton had studied under Roger Bissiere in Paris in the 30s and showed regularly in the late 40s and early 50s in the context of the growing Parisian-centred tachiste movement: often seen as a European counter-point to American Abstract Expressionism. However, Hilton’s increasing concern with the picture surface as a whole began to grow and in 1953 he visited Amsterdam with Constant to see works by Mondrian at the Stedelijk Museum. The works he produced in response to this stimulus were quite unlike anything else being produced in Britain at the time, combining a limited but brilliantly conceived palette with a freedom of handling and composition that liberated the painting from subject, yet remained intensely personal and hand-made: in short a form of abstraction that all his contemporaries could be said to be feeling their way towards.

Scott in the studio in the Accademia, Venice, 1958.
© James Scott.  Courtesy of William Scott Foundation.

The five artists in this catalogue, therefore, were all equally versed in the inter-war world of European modernism, each with first-hand experience of Continental currents, and by the 1950s – well before the MoMA shows at the Tate – were starting to gain some experience of the latest moves in America. By the following decade, with the exception of the resolutely Francophile and flying-averse Hilton, they would all have first-hand experience of the New York scene too. And the value of this experience, when opportunities to travel and see work by your overseas contemporaries were so limited, was inevitably of great and lasting significance. A trip to New York was not just a brief jet flight within the reach of virtually all, it was an experience that had to be savoured and remembered. However, one must also consider that, whilst we can assume the impact of such trips to be substantial, they can also be rather narrow - one’s experience is limited to the contacts that can be explored. It was here that these British artists were fortunate, as the galleries that took them on were able to give them great introductions and exposure.

Martha Jackson, who showed Scott in her Upper East Side space, was exceptionally well placed within the New York gallery world (her former teacher Hans Hofmann was her adviser) and she showed not only young American artists such as Sam Francis and Morris Louis but also a host of Europeans, including Tapies, Marini and Appel. Bertha Schaefer, designer and artist-turned-gallerist showed Heron alongside European artists. She was also a friend of Lilian Somerville, director of the Fine Arts section of the British Council (and the main player in the Selection Committee for the British Pavilion at Venice) and thus another conduit for ideas traversing the Atlantic.

Lanyon and Davie were shown by Catherine Viviano, who was also an influential figure in the presentation of contemporary Italian art in New York. An anecdote recalled by the collector Stanley J. Seeger perhaps best illustrates how currents flowed: already a collector of Lanyon as well as Italians such as Burri, Seeger called into Viviano’s gallery whilst in New York in the spring of 1956. The gallery was in the process of hanging Alan Davie’s first New York exhibition, with Jackson Pollock helping out with the selection. Seeger and Pollock spent a long time together discussing the impact of the paintings, with Pollock advising Seeger to buy one of Davie’s early masterpieces The Goddess of the Green for his collection.8

For a period of around twenty-five years, from the outbreak of the Second World War through to the mid-1960s, the small Cornish fishing town of St Ives, at the westernmost tip of Britain, could be said to have been as important a centre of avant-garde activity as London, a year-round equivalent to Long Island’s summer rivalry to New York. All five of the artists featured in this catalogue had strong links to St Ives. Davie and Scott were frequent visitors, although never fully committed to the life of cheap rents in stone houses high on the moors and large studios in roughly converted net-mending lofts. For Lanyon, a native Cornishman, the place and its history is in the bones of his mature painting – and he vehemently and frequently denied that he was an ‘abstract’ painter at all.9 For Heron, the move to St Ives marked a liberation in his use of colour. His work becomes more purely formal too, in tune with Clement Greenberg’s precepts that a painting should contain reference only to its material fact, as forms and colours arrayed on a flat surface (although a visit to Eagle’s Nest, the house and garden he lived in from 1956 until his death, high on a promontory above the wild coast of Zennor, suddenly makes the floating colours and forms seem somehow a good deal less abstract). For Hilton, who first took a studio in nearby Newlyn in the early 1950s, his connections to St Ives forged important friendships, some of which would be of lasting benefit to him, whilst others would fuel his own self-destructive tendencies, most notably his relationship with the poet W.S. Graham.

Peter Lanyon in the studio with the Mural commission for Stanley J Seeger in progress July 1962.  Photograph by Sheila Lanyon.
© The Estate of the Artist.

The critic Lawrence Alloway, in his ground-breaking 1954 book Nine Abstract Artists, a manifesto for a new generation of (urban) Constructive artists, aimed what seems a slightly tart barb at those artists associated with St Ives, who ‘combine non-figurative theory with the practice of abstraction because the landscape is so nice nobody can quite bring themselves to leave it out of their art.’10 In contrast to the rigorously non-figurative Constructionists – working in sheet metal, formica and Perspex – the inference is that this is a failing, despite the fact that the works by Scott and Hilton illustrated in this Molotov cocktail of a book clearly ‘abstract’ from the body whilst leaving a very corporeal trace. This influence of the real world, ‘abstraction’ rather than ‘abstract’, is not a detrimental thing, however, but something that actually contributes towards the unique character of these artists’ work rather than it being seen as a failing. The growing awareness of the achievements of their American contemporaries by the British artists of this generation was also a growing awareness of where they differed. As early as 1953, Scott had felt he detected distinct variances between what he and his friends were trying to achieve and the work of the American painters, and indeed found that his consideration of these points led him to believe in an inherent European sensibility to his work. And later Heron was to clash with Greenberg over the latter’s claims of the superiority of American art due to its denial of external phenomena acting upon the language of abstract art.11

If one returns to Alfred Barr’s question about what was it that united the artists of the New York School and then apply it to the wider world, what does run true for many important painters of the Post-War period – American, European, British – is the urge to move forward, to approach their art with a spirit of adventure and to explore new imagery and techniques as part of this. The body of avant-garde work produced in Britain during these years from the late 1940s through to the early 1960s, shows not only a remarkable affinity with its European and American contemporaries, but also a distinct character of its own, a willingness to explore just what was meant by ‘abstract’ and ‘abstraction’, and a richness of invention that still carries enormous impact and power. However, all the artists of this time are united by a shared passion to move the boundaries. They all, equally, as Hilton memorably wrote, ‘submit… entirely to the unknown…like a man swinging out into the void.'12

Alan Davie, Cambridge Gliding Club, October 1966.  Photograph by David Ware.


1Adapted from W.S. Graham’s Ppoem, ‘The Thermal Stair’, dictated to Peter Lanyon after his death due to a fliding accident: ‘You said one in the Engine/ House below Morvah / That words make their world/ in the same way as the painter’s/ Mark surprises him / Into seeing new…’

2The exhibition had toured to Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris before arriving in London.

3Patrick Heron, ‘The Americans at the Tate Gallery’, Arts (NY), March 1956, pp.15-17.

4Alfred H. Barr, introduction to exhibition catalogue for The New American Painting, Tate, London, February – March 1959.

5As quoted in the catalogue for the Arts Council’s exhibition, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Tate, London, December 1964 – March 1965, p.84.

6See Norbert Lynton, William Scott, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004, chapter 3 ‘Abstraction and Figuration: Moments of Transition’, pp. 103-189.

7See Heron’s introduction to the Space in Colour exhibition he curated for the Hanover Gallery in 1953.

8Stanley Seeger related this story to the author in 2000, when Sotheby’s sold Davie’s Goddess of the Green.

9A point of view expressed time and again in Lanyon’s correspondence, but most publicly in a lecture, ‘Abstractions and Constructions’, 1959 (Tate Archive TAV 213B).

10Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists: Their Work and Theory, Tiranti, London, 1954, p.12.

11This played out mainly in a trio of articles in Studio International December 1996, February 1968 and December 1970 and a full-page, illustrated essay, published over 3 days, in The Guardian in October 1974.

12Roger Hilton, artist’s statement, quoted in Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists: Their Work and Theory, Alec Tiranti, London, 1954, p.30