Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Brown and Yellow 1951-2


Oil on board 511 x 120 (20 1/8 x 4 ¾) on a secondary painted board 610 x 203 (24 x 8)

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Purchased from the artist through the Penwith Gallery, St Ives by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1952


Summer exhibition, Penwith Gallery, St Ives, 1952 (90)


Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, pp.49-50

Speaking in 1998, the artist associated Brown and Yellow, 1951-2 with the Walk Along the Quay series of paintings which, as the title makes clear, were based upon his experience of walking beside the harbour at St Ives.[1] However, twenty-one years earlier he had asserted the painting’s independence from external sources and insisted that ‘At that time he was interested in relating geometrical shapes to one another. There are no references to the visible world of nature in Brown and Yellow’.[2] The confusion can be seen as indicative of either the inherent ambiguity in the artist’s works from the early 1950s, or Frost’s desire not to be aligned with a single faction of contemporary art practice.

Frost exhibited the painting Walk Along the Quay, 1950 (private collection on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield)[3] at the important exhibition of Abstract Paintings, Sculpture and Mobiles at the Artists International Association in 1951. There it hung with the work of a group of artists, dominated by Victor Pasmore and centred on the London studio of Adrian Heath, who were continuing the project of pre-war constructivism. While they claimed a detached objectivity for their paintings and constructions, Frost discussed his work in terms of personal narrative as much as geometrical formulae. He recalled that

Walk Along the Quay came from a true walk, a regular morning stroll and the constant movement always ... intrigued me ... Things were happening to my right and beneath – my feet felt and saw all the shapes of boats tied up and either preparing to go out or unloading. The strange feeling of looking on top of boats at high tide and at the same boats tied up and resting on their support posts when the tide’s out ... Low water gives static shape, more smell, more detail of ropes, huge floats etc., high water gives in addition to colour an ever-changing form with a never-known movement, or always something new – reflection, colour, movement, nothing static or fixed ... So after all this I had no problem in finding out how to paint Walk Along the Quay ... I managed to paint up the canvas or along the canvas, like I walked along the quay, in fact I just walked up the canvas with paint.[4]

Various aspects of Brown and Yellow seem to relate it to the larger work: the long, thin format, its strong vertical division and the dominating semi-circle. The handling of the paint, applied in thick strokes within sharply defined spatial divisions, is also very similar to passages in Walk Along the Quay. The fact that the latter was both the result of a process of development through numerous smaller works – paintings, drawings and collages - and the progenitor of a series of later paintings encourages such an association.

In both paintings the artist used the Golden Section, an ancient proportional formula defined as the ratio 1:0.618, in the determination of the composition.[5] In Walk Along the Quay the Golden Section of the right hand edge marks off the bottom right hand area of blue and, in Brown and Yellow, it falls on the lower edge of the square on the left hand side. The same proportion measured from the top seems to fix the apex of the arc of the semi-circle. The work is painted on 3/16 hardboard which was crudely sawn before priming, leaving the top edge ragged and lacking cohesion. Such rough edges, and their exposure by the floating of the board within a frame, were common among St Ives artists in the early 1950s and probably reflected their common interest in the work of the untutored local artist Alfred Wallis (1855-1942). The painting is attached with animal glue to a larger piece of the same board which has a thin, brushmarked paint layer on its smooth, outward face. The artist confirmed that both boards, which are slightly concave, are integral to the work.[6] The work itself has a white ground that appears to be emulsion paint over which oil paint was used. The ground has cracked extensively as a result of its poor adhesion to the board and, in the past, the cupping of paint and ground led to cleavage and some small losses. These were secured in 1977. The uneven retention of medium in the paint has caused variations in gloss.

Frost had encountered the use of geometry as a compositional tool as a student at Camberwell School of Art (1947-9), where it was advocated by the professor William Coldstream. It had long been used by Victor Pasmore, a tutor at the school, and when he made his dramatic move to an abstract style in 1948 he continued to employ such apparently objective devices. The strong influence that Pasmore had on Frost, his former student, can be seen in Brown and Yellow. Its assembly of conjoined squares, rectangles and triangles has a sense of inter-related proportion and of a progressive development and these were qualities seen in Pasmore’s work. For example, the latter’s Square Motif, Blue and Gold: The Eclipse, 1950 (Tate N05974), is similarly made up of squares and triangles of related sizes and, perhaps significantly, also carries clear allusions to landscape. The semi-circle also featured in many of Pasmore’s works of the period, especially the collages - such as Abstract in White, Grey and Ochre, 1949 (Tate T00094) - which were equally determined by a loosely applied geometry. Specifically, Pasmore was influenced by J.W. Power’s The Elements of Pictorial Construction (Paris 1933), which articulated a method for moving and rotating geometrical forms. Drawing on Power’s development of the work of Jay Hambidge,[7] Pasmore based the composition of a work on a certain square or rectangle, the development or movement of which would generate the other forms. Thus the semi-circle of his collage was established through the implied rotation of the square. Though Frost’s description of the experiential source for such paintings as Walk Along the Quay associated his use of the semi-circle with boat forms and their movement, it might equally be seen as a totally abstract device deriving from Pasmore’s work.

It is possible that Brown and Yellow was neither totally free of all outside references nor derived from ‘the visible world of nature’. Frost’s first abstract painting, Madrigal, 1949 (Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery),[8] is an example of a painting based upon narrative but not drawn from the artist’s own experience. Produced for a project at Camberwell, the work was inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem Madrigal (1949), about a coal miner and his lover, which attracted Frost because of the beauty of its rhythm and its symbolic use of colour.[9] There, the artist subdivided the support using the Golden Section and then filled the resultant composition with colours that symbolise the shifting emotions of the poem. At the same time, the contrast of light and darker areas suggests a landscape. Frost later recalled that the application of the qualities of one art to another – the appropriation of colour by the poet and of rhythm by the painter – was reaffirmed in discussions with the composer Priaulx Rainier (1903-86), whom he met while working as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth (1950-1). ‘I was particularly interested in the way in which she talked about her music in painting terms’, he said, ‘she would talk about the colour of a sound, and the shape of a sound, and the spaces between sounds, and the rhythms that connected them’.[10] The painter drew similar analogies in a published statement: ‘One can create universal emotions of forms – what about a subjective emotion so ordered that it reappears in abstract arrangements of form i.e. music? In painting, a language of particular forms and colours – the living yet universal evolution of particular visual experience.’[11]

In the light of these comments, Brown and Yellow can be seen as an exercise in the relationship of colour and form. Frost worked within a prevailing belief among many non-representational painters that the key mark of quality in modern painting was flat or shallow pictorial space. For them the challenge was to achieve a conjunction of painted forms of such an equal value that none was seen as the ground and none the figure standing before it. Later the importance of flatness would become associated with the American critic Clement Greenberg, but it was already an established aspect of modernist painting exemplified by the work of such artists as Piet Mondrian and, more locally, Ben Nicholson. In such a work as Brown and Yellow Frost experimented with a palette that does not allow any one area of the painting to seem to be in front of, or behind, any other. The colouring of the painting has a considerable range. Rich yellow shines out from the top left hand corner and along the lower left-hand side. A variety of browns dominate the surface. Several areas of different blacks and isolated areas of white punctuate the composition. A modulated, fiery red holds the bottom of the painting, while a red square towards the top and an orange triangle on the left-hand side help to articulate the surface pattern. The tonal range is narrow, however, ensuring an overall flatness. That this was achieved with some difficulty is, perhaps, indicated by various changes made in the course of painting. Most of the right-hand side, for example is made up of an area in which yellow and brown appear to have been mixed as they were painted over orange or red; the L-shaped area of deep red at the bottom was lightened by the application of a more orange tone.

Brown and Yellow belonged to a one-time neighbour of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Ethel Hodgkins, known locally as ‘Hodgy’. Frost met her when he first arrived in Cornwall and was camping in a field opposite her house in Headland Road, Carbis Bay, and she introduced him to Hepworth and Nicholson who lived a little way along the road.[12] In the early 1950s she started to collect works by locally based artists, usually buying small-scale pieces from the Penwith Society of Arts. Hepworth persuaded her to bequeath to the Tate Gallery her collection, which, in addition to Frost, included works by Nicholson, Hepworth, Denis Mitchell, John Wells, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Patrick Hayman and Alexander Mackenzie.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[2] Notes of a conversation with David Brown, 1 November 1977, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[3] Reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.47 (colour)
[4] Notes on the St Ives years, quoted in Lewis 1994, p.49
[5] See entry on Green, Black and White Movement, 1951, T01501
[6] Conversation with David Brown, 1 November 1977, notes in Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[7] Jay Hambidge, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, New York 1926, 2nd ed. 1948
[8] Reproduced in Lewis 1994, p.46 (colour)
[9] Ibid., pp.42-4
[10] Interview with David Lewis, October 1993, quoted in Lewis 1994, p.55
[11] ‘What I Think Today’, Penwith Society Broadsheet, no.4, summer 1953, [p.1]
[12] Ibid., p.34