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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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