Frost, Heron, Lanyon Scott: Four Giants of British Modernism

Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and William Scott were groundbreaking British post-war artists who were inspired by the Cornish landscape. These major figures are featured in a new exhibition at Beaux Arts London entitled Giants of British Modernism. The four, together with many others such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach, were pioneers of British abstract art and were associated with the St Ives School. 

The fishing village of St Ives attracted artists for its spectacular scenery and the clarity of its light. Patricia Singh, co-director of Beaux Arts, ran the Will’s Lane Gallery in St Ives in the 1970s and knew three of the four artists well. Peter Lanyon had died in a glider crash in 1964. The exhibition features 5-6 works from each painter. In the following interview she was able to give me a personal insight into the artists’ works and the creativity behind them.

Patricia, why when contemporary art is thriving, have you decided on a retro show featuring four painters from the post-war era? 

It’s now a time in Britain when we have spent three years being stuck watching politicians act egoistically. These are four artists who came from the war into a new world and were trying to look at life and painting afresh, with optimism and life-enhancing colour, light and use of paint.

They were radical because they wanted to use paint and materials in a new way. It was happening also in America and western Europe – the same push for finding a new way for artists to express themselves. 

Let’s take Terry Frost. He was from a poor background who began living in St Ives with his wife and family in a one-room cottage.

Frost came from Yorkshire originally. He joined the army when he was 18 and was captured and became a prisoner of war. He spent three years in a camp called Stalag 383 and met Adrian Heath there who was already a known artist. It was Adrian Heath who encouraged him to start drawing portraits of their fellow prisoners. They used bits of charcoal from the fire, oil from sardine cans etcetera. He talked about his time in the prisoner of war camp and said and I quote, “It was a tremendous physical experience, I was more aware of heightened perception during starvation.” 

He came from there in due course with his wife Kath to a tiny little cottage in the centre of St Ives. They were in the process of having their seven children. Terry used to get sent out walking the pram with the little ones running behind on the quay in St Ives. Those early walks of his became part of his early works called his Walk Along the Quay series of which we have one in the show. It’s about looking and seeing shapes reflected in the water. The painting we have here is called Moon Quay (above left) from 1950. Basically, they are shapes of the hulls, very simple. That rounded shape with a flat edge fascinated him and he did all sorts of paintings and collages with that shape building in and using colour to make them bounce off each other. We also have a later painting of his in the show called Black and White (above right). It’s the same idea of the boat shape but it’s just black and white. It’s got four very simple shapes – two black and two white. It was the extreme simplicity of his work in his later years.

He seems to be influenced by artists like Mondrian who boiled down scenes into simplified forms.

Yes, and they were also very much in touch with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein and Mark Rothko. Rothko used to visit St Ives and so they all fed off each other. There were a lot of communal parties and a lot of talking about art. There was a famous moment when a lot of the St Ives artists were sitting around with bottles of wine and Terry Frost declared that there were 89 different blacks.    

Frost was, as you say, very interested in colour whereas William Scott was less so, more of a tonalist wouldn’t you say?

Yes. Scott, like Terry was brought up in a poor family. He was born in Scotland but brought up in Ireland, in Enniskillen. He went to the local school, he did night classes and, finally, got a scholarship to the Royal Academy school. He lived in Italy and France a lot as he got older and he was influenced by a lot that was going on at the time but also of the French Impressionists. 

Still Life Black and Grey, 1952 ©Estate of William Scott

Some of his paintings you have in the show, such as Still Life Black and Grey are quite austere with that typical flat perspective. 

Yes, I wonder if he was thinking about Frosts’s comment of 89 blacks! He used pots, pans, knives, fish that he reduced to their simplistic forms, sometimes erotically suggestive or arranged on tabletops. He became a map-reader during the war and I sometimes wonder if the flattened surfaces didn’t come from those years. He was a very strong personality. We used to go and visit him in his house in Chelsea and it was laid out like this. The furniture was very carefully positioned, there was minimalist decor in the rooms and there was always, as there is in Scott’s paintings, an inner sense of balance. It’s impossible to describe but it’s there. 

All these painters were painting from experience rather than theory weren’t they.        

Yes. There’s a classic story that Patrick Heron told us. When Scott was painting his still lives, all the pots, the pans and the cups had their handles on. He went to see Patrick Heron one day and he said ‘Patrick, I’m stuck.’ And Patrick would have paused as he always did before he said anything and then he said, ‘William, take the handles off’. So he did. They became just abstract pot shapes. I’m not sure that Scott would ever give Patrick the credit for this but certainly Patrick took the credit (laughs).

Big Violet with Red and Blue, 1965 ©Estate of Patrick Heron

Turning to Patrick Heron, you have this large work of his Big Violet with Red and Blue which, in contrast to William Scott’s, is full of colour and space. 

This is an early painting done not long after he moved to Eagle’s Nest in St Ives. Patrick had an infectious pleasure in seeing. For him, seeing wasn’t a passive operation. He claimed that painting could literally alter the way we see the world. If you experience St Ives and you experience St Ives art, and I don’t just isolate it to just these four artists, there was obviously Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and a whole host of others, you will never the see the world quite the same again because you will look more intensely. Patrick was looking out over the Cornish landscape that was steeped in history and had a rugged geological form to it. Everything is rounded with odd shapes including the little walls that go round the fields and follow the contours of the land. So, as Patrick Heron said famously one day, he was looking out his window and realised that he wasn’t an abstract painter and that all along he had been painting the shapes of the fields he looked at every day. 

I notice how important the purple space is in this picture.    

Yes. Patrick used tiny brushes so it took him ages to get the paint on to the canvas but it also gave it that lovely textured surface. We spent one evening with him after he’d spent all day painting a lime green on a picture. He couldn’t stop because he had to finish the whole area and he was suffering from a blinding headache. Ironically enough, his studio at the time was painted lime green which probably didn’t help. Heron said probably some of the most famous things anybody has ever said about colour. My overriding interest is colour, colour is the subject and the means, the form and the content, the image and the meaning in my paintings. He was obsessed with colour, he talked about what colour can do for people, how it could make sick people better. He was fascinated by it and so a lot of his conversation with all these St Ives artists was about colour and how you use it.     

Untitled: Cliff Face, 1964 ©The Peter Lanyon Archive

Though he was inspired by foreign trips to places like Mexico which inspired his 1963 painting Saltillo, for example, at the top of this article, Peter Lanyon loved the Cornish landscape didn’t he. 

Peter Lanyon was the only true Cornishman. He joined the RAF and became a fighter pilot, hence his later influence in taking up gliding. He had a huge sense of adventure and danger and that’s in his works. His sons talk of terrifying drives with him on the Cornish coast telling how he would drive to the edge of a cliff and slam on his brakes. I suspect he piloted his glider in the same way.   He loved floating over the edge of a cliff face in Cornwall where you get these terrifying updrafts that just lift the plane sometimes sideways. He loved the way you could see colour when you could only see it through a black cloud. Untitled: Cliff Face in this show (above) does just that. It was the last thing he did before he crashed. It’s an aerial view of a lovely Cornish coast but there is a black cloud over it either on the coast or in his mind. They didn’t think the crash was terminal because he wasn’t in hospital very long but he died in bed. 

The picture has a lot going on in it, it’s very energetic.

And it’s very emotional and almost prophetic I think. What’s so interesting about these artists is that they so relate to one another. Terry Frost used to talk about how Lanyon would drive him around the Cornish coast at a ridiculous speed and tell him that you didn’t see landscape, you felt it, you absorbed it. That informed Terry’s own view of landscape painting as well and of painting in general. It was the excitement of it. This shows itself in all sorts of ways in this exhibition. It was the excitement of painting, of using colour, of doing things differently, not being part of a tradition and making a new tradition. I do think that all the artists that were down there working in their way  in a lesser or more important way did feel that they were breaking boundaries.

Four Giants of British Modernism is showing at Beaux Arts London, 48 Maddox Street, London W1S 1AY until 19 October 2019

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