Sir Terry Frost

R. B. and W. Spiral for A.


Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1905 x 1905 mm
Purchased 1992

Display caption

This is one of three large spiral paintings and is related to a number of smaller spiral works. Frost has incorporated discs and spirals, evoking the sun, into his paintings since the 1950s. Here, the title stands for Red, Black and White for Arizona. Frost made this painting following a trip to the United States and the letter A also refers to his son, Adrian, who was with him in the Arizona desert. Frost has commented 'I found the desert not as I believed it to be... Arizona was full of cacti in bloom, with spirals of colour everywhere; it was a totally different excitement that I hadn't experienced before.'

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

R. B. and W. for A. 1991


Oil and acrylic on canvas 1905 x 1905 (75 x 75)

Inscribed on top selvage in black paint ‘ R B & W for A’ and ‘Terry Frost 91’

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1992

David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.228

Having sketched a spiral first in charcoal, across a field of white acrylic paint Terry Frost painted a clockwise spiral of red oil. As the paint on his brush ran out, the line was continued with a much drier paint, probably an oil stick (the red has been found to have a small paraffin wax content). Within that initial spiral another of black acrylic was added. Areas of white were clearly still wet as the black dragged into it in places. The second spiral was not continuous, and one can see where it has been added to and adjusted.

In 1990 Terry Frost started to make paintings in which the spiral was the principal, or the only, motif. The first large painting of this kind was Arizona Spirals, 1990 (artist’s collection), which is a triptych in which each panel is painted a primary colour (red, blue and yellow) with numerous small spirals in black, white, or another tone of the same colour, arrayed across the field.[1] Later, in 1995, he produced a triptych in which three primary coloured panels were each filled with a single spiral of a tone slightly different to the main ground.[2] In between these two works, Frost made a number of spiral paintings more akin to R, B & W Spiral for A, in which one or two lines of different colours circle on a square white ground; he painted at least one with two spirals on a double-square canvas. In 1991, he made a group of thirty smaller paintings, each 635 mm (25 inches) square, which have different coloured centres from which lines of black and the central colour spiral out towards the edges. In 1994, the artist was said to be ‘considering adding a 75 inch, 190.5 cm square spiral in the centre’.[3] In fact, at the time of their production, he had photographed R, B & W Spiral for A framed by three rows of these smaller paintings, suggesting an alternative context for what is now a self-contained work.[4]

The title of Frost’s first spiral, Arizona Spirals, signalled the stated source of inspiration for the paintings, a visit to his son in Arizona. He told the Tate that, while the ‘R, B & W’ of the title of the present work refer to its colours, the ‘A’ stands for Arizona; he also added that it could stand for his son, Adrian.[5] The use of such an associative label is typical of his titling practice. While in Arizona he had been hugely impressed by a journey through the dramatic desert landscape and it is to this that he, rather elliptically, linked the spiral. A long banner, made for the opening of the Tate Gallery St Ives in 1993, of spirals with similarly brightly coloured lines radiating from them, may suggest that he associated the form with the sun. He has also said that the immense span of time implied by the Arizona landscape, which encompasses such extraordinary features as the Grand Canyon, reminded him of the spiral, which has recurred as a symbol in different cultures over a huge period of time. Its longevity as a symbol, and its form, are both suggested by his statement that ‘spirals go on forever’.[6]

The spiral motif was not new to Frost’s art when it re-emerged at the beginning of the 1990s. As David Lewis has noted, spirals ‘appear in a relief of 1951-2, in a linocut of 1952 where they are doubled and in lithographs from the late 1950s. They underlie a number of soft suspended forms of the late 1960s and their movement seems to be behind the flat geometry of the Newlyn Rhythms’.[7] At the time of their first appearance in the Construction, 1951-2, the motif could be related to Frost’s linear renditions of seawater crashing around a harbour wall, as seen in the Arts Council’s Green and Black Movement, 1952.[8] Both, however, were also probably indebted to the slightly earlier work of Victor Pasmore, Frost’s teacher from 1947-9 and a close friend. Pasmore had produced a number of paintings built up from spirals and other, similar linear forms. These included his Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold: Coast of the Inland Sea, 1950 (Tate N06191) and a series of predominantly black and white paintings, including Spiral Development: The Snowstorm, 1950-1 (Arts Council Collection).[9] Such works are notable for their delicate balance of figuration – they generally refer to landscape – and abstraction, typified by their reliance upon the spiral.

These closer associations notwithstanding, Terry Frost has said that the attraction of the spiral was its literal and cultural continuity. Formally, it possesses the continuity of a circle, without the enclosure or finality. It is seen in nature and, historically, it has appeared in a variety of different cultures. Living in Cornwall, the artist was especially conscious of its place in Celtic artefacts, but he also cited Australian aboriginal imagery as another source.[10] ‘If you walk along the coast’, he said in 2000, ‘you pick up shells and you see those shapes. They are always a growth form. The aboriginals use spirals in their art and animals have spirals in their movement ... The whole thing is part of life’.[11] The immensity of nature and of time, and art’s expression of our place within them, has been the principal concern underlying Frost’s work over the years. The spiral seems to have provided an apposite symbol for those concerns.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.227 (colour)
[2] Reproduced in Terry Frost: 80th Birthday Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1995 (unpaginated)
[3] Caption to Spirals, 1991, reproduced in Lewis 1994, p.226 (colour)
[4] Photograph, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[5] Interview with Tate Gallery conservators, 17 February 1993
[6] Quoted in Lewis 1994, p.225
[7] Lewis 1994, p.225; Construction, 1951-2, private collection, reproduced in Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.30; Newlyn Rhythms, 1981-8, on loan to County Hall, Truro, reproduced, ibid., p.131 (colour)
[8] Reproduced ibid., p.26
[9] Spiral Development: The Snowstorm, 1950-1, reproduced in Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-79, London 1980, p.91
[10] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[11] ‘Memory and Imagination: Terry Frost in Conversation with Isabel Carlisle’, Terry Frost: Six Decades, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2000, p.70