Sir Terry Frost: A life in art at Leeds Art Gallery

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A new exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery celebrates the life and work of popular abstract artist Sir Terry Frost. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Abstract art can often be complex, inaccessible and dark but if there is one British artist who is able to communicate the potential vibrancy and joy of abstraction it is Sir Terry Frost whose life and work is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery.

Born into a working class family in the Midlands, Frost first became interested in art during the Second World War when as a prisoner of war in Germany in 1943 he met the artist Adrian Heath who had a profound influence on him.

Frost then went on to study at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now known as Camberwell College of Arts) and spent time in St Ives in Cornwall after the war just as the Cornish fishing port was beginning to establish itself as a hub for modern British art. There he met and worked with established artists such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth – he was an assistant at Hepworth’s Trewyn studio in the early 1950s working on her large-scale piece Contrapuntal Forms for the Festival of Britain.

Frost began teaching at Bath Academy of Art in 1952 and two years later was invited to become a Gregory Fellow at the University of Leeds, going on to teach at Leeds College of Art for several years. The exhibition acknowledges the key role that the city of Leeds and the Yorkshire landscape, particularly the imposing forms of the Dales, had in informing the artist’s work, ideas and creative development.

“He spent his formative years in Yorkshire and we have a couple of his works in our collection,” says Leeds Art Gallery curator Sarah Brown. “We have an ongoing relationship with Tate St Ives and with the centenary of Frost’s birth this year, the curator there was working with the estate to put a show together, so we were an obvious partner.”

There are over thirty pieces of work in the show covering six decades of Frost’s work from the 1950s right up to 2003, the year of his death. “The exhibition really focuses on his significant work,” says Brown. “We have a lot of loans from the estate and from public collections across the country – including some that have never been seen before. We are also showing some of his sculptural forms which are very interesting in terms of contemporary art because they became his later canvases. They are very colourful fabric constructions which are incredibly recognisable as Frost.” Also on display are photographs of the artist and his family in St Ives and Yorkshire and other archive material.

Frost remained committed to abstraction throughout his life and career and he represents, along with other artists like Roger Hilton and Patrick Heron, a new approach to abstract painting. “His works are very bold and joyful – there is a pleasure in paint and colour and movement,” says Brown. “The language of abstraction can often be connected to a kind of anxiety and austerity but I think in Frost’s work there is a joyfulness and rich expression of colour that’s quite infectious. Also, you can see a real connection with the landscape.”

The exhibition points up the impact that Frost’s surroundings had on his work and the way in which his paintings reflected the different landscapes of the two most significant locations in his life – first Cornwall and then Yorkshire.

“You can see in his work that moment when the Cornish landscape was so formative,” says Brown. “His breakthrough picture Walk Along the Quay was inspired by taking his children out along the harbour at St Ives.

“In the Cornish works it is all about the sea and tides, the horizon and looking into the distance – the long view. Then you can see the impact that coming to Yorkshire had on his work – it is much more enveloping as a viewing experience. You can see the shift and how that informed the scale of his work..”

* Terry Frost, organised by Tate St Ives in collaboration with Leeds Art Gallery and Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange.

* The show is at Leeds Art Gallery until August 30 2015.