Sir Terry Frost, R.A.
- Sir Terry Frost, R.A.
- Coastal Figure, St Ives
- signed, titled and dated 1952-3 on the reverse
- oil on board
- 101.5 by 305cm.; 40 by 120in.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998
London, Tate, Figures in Their Setting, 5th November - 20th December 1953, cat. no.21;
Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, Seven British Painters of Today, 4th - 25th July 1959, cat. no.13, with Arts Council tour to National Library of Wales and Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea;
Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery, Terry Frost Retrospective Exhibition, April - May 1964, cat. no.10;
Plymouth, Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, Terry Frost: Paintings, Drawings and Collages, 1976-77, cat. no.11, with Arts Council tour to Royal West of England Academy, Bristol and Serpentine Gallery, London;
London, Royal Academy, British Painting 1952-77, 24th September - 20th November 1977, cat. no.126, where lent by the Artist;
St Ives, Tate, Porthmeor Beach: A Century of Images, April - October 1995, ex-catalogue;
London, Belgrave Gallery, London – The Modern Movement, 1999.
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Frost had moved to St Ives in 1946, using the back pay from his time as a P.O.W. to attend the St Ives School of Painting. Here he met Peter Lanyon, who in turn introduced him to John Wells, and it was these friendships that enabled Frost to make the shift from figuration to abstraction, to an idiom that sought to combine the rhythms and structure of the natural world within a geometric, Constructivist system of picture-making, inspired in no small part by the presence of Naum Gabo, who had settled up the road from St Ives in Carbis Bay.
In Madrigal (1949, Leamington Spa Art Gallery) the composition is constructed through successive sub-divisions of the canvas along the golden section, yet at the same time it clearly evokes a landscape: the two diamonds in the centre are slag heaps from the tin mines that pock-mark the countryside around St Ives, an almost literal response to the subject of W.H Auden's poem that gives the work its title, whilst to the left a dark headland looms above a still, moonlit sea. Frost develops this idea in Walk Along the Quay (1950, Private Collection), which adds to a Gabo-esque interlocking structure to a Lanyon-esque interpretation of a landscape (in this case, Smeaton’s Pier) seen from all angles, and across time, in one continuous image. It is a painting not about looking at the world, but about the experience and memory of places.
All of this combines in Coastal Figure, St Ives. Based on the walk from Porthmeor Beach to Man’s Head at Zennor, a few miles west, this monumental painting perfectly balances abstract values with a definite sense of place. The dry, almost ghostly white lines that structure the composition mark out the shape of the headland, as if seen from the sea, whilst the skein of heavy black lines in the interior read as ploughed and walled fields seen from above. A fugitive moon appears in three distinct places – above and below the ‘horizon’ – whilst a wave-like spiral rolls in to the land-locked centre of the composition. And whilst the vertical and horizontal lines evoke man's intervention on the land, on the diagonal they dissolve into a liquid slashing rain. The painting is a time-map of this stretch of coast, of endless heavy Cornish weather and soil and rock scored deep with mythology and mysticism, long before the hard-working souls of Penwith left their mark.
So deep is its evocation of the land that the work's title seems something of a mystery. Frost changed the work’s orientation – and gave it its title – in response to the Contemporary Art Society’s request for paintings of the figure for an exhibition at the Tate in 1953. Unlike many of his peers in St Ives, Frost could not rely on a private income to survive, so had to grasp any opportunity that came his way. Coastal Figure was accepted for the show and, as a consequence hung as a vertical for many years, only being definitively re-aligned as a landscape in 2000. As with many things in life, Frost wore his Modernism lightly: an abstract painting, after all, should have a visual and structural integrity that meant it could be looked at from all sides. What might cause an artist to decide could be something as simple as the exigencies of making a living.