Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Untitled Compositionc.1954-6

T05719

Watercolour on paper 570 x 438 (22 ½ x 17 ¼)

Inscribed in pencil on back ‘c.54/56’ and ‘Leeds Terry Frost’, upside down along bottom edge

Purchased from the artist through Austin/Desmond Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1989

Exhibited:
Terry Frost: Works on Paper, 25 Years: 1947-72, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London, October 1989 (24, reproduced in colour p.7)

Since he first started to paint during World War Two, Terry Frost has made works on paper in a wide variety of media. He has frequently used drawing and watercolour in the development of his abstract oil paintings. On occasion they have recorded an observed view or event and acted as intermediate stages between that original source and the final work. Though there are a number of similar works, an oil painting directly related to this Untitled Composition is not known. Its high degree of finish may indicate that the artist saw it as a self-sufficient work.

In common with Untitled Composition c.1955 (Tate T05718), this work was made while Frost was Gregory Fellow in painting at the University of Leeds, a position he held for two years from October 1954. The inscribed date was almost certainly added later, probably shortly before the 1989 exhibition. It was probably made in the studio provided by the university in Moor Road, Leeds, but the artist returned to his home in St Ives during the summers and it may possibly have been made there. It belongs to a group of works which he related to his experience of the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. The artist refuted the previous suggestion that the rectangular forms, which first appeared in his paintings in 1955, derived from the pattern of fields divided by stone walls.[1] However, the verticality of most of these works reflected what he felt to be the enormity of that landscape, which seemed to dwarf him, in contrast to his previous experience of the moors of west Cornwall, where one felt like a giant able to see two coasts at once.[2] In the 1960s, the artist related one of the first of his Leeds paintings, Red, Black and White, Leeds, 1955 (private collection),[3] to the view from his flat, through the blackened chimneys of north Leeds, to the Dales in the distance. That provided the source for the black and white, and the red was introduced for formal reasons. Frost has attributed his love of red, black and white to the influence of the Russian Constructivist El Lissitsky, whose work he had encountered when his friend, the London-based painter Adrian Heath, was researching his book Abstract Art: Its Origins and Meanings (London 1953). Frost also used colour to evoke certain feelings and refer to particular experiences. High Yellow: Yorkshire c.1955 (Leeds City Art Gallery) was related to the landscape in the summer, while a series of predominantly black and white paintings, such as Winter 1956, Yorkshire 1956 (Tate T01924), derived from his experiences in the snow-bound landscape in the winter of 1955-6.[4] Perhaps, the reds and pinks, which fill most of the black rectangles in this watercolour, were intended to evoke the heat of a summer’s day.

The shallow curve that crosses towards the bottom of the composition was seen in other works, including High Yellow: Yorkshire, and may have been intended to suggest the slope of a valley. For most of his career, Frost used geometry to set down some sort of basic compositional structure, and it is characteristic that this curve crosses the edges approximately at the Golden Section (the ratio of 1:1.618) of the height of the work. The use of a black square or rectangle in one corner to anchor the composition is equally typical of the period, as is illustrated by Winter 1956, Yorkshire. On one occasion, Frost related the swirling patterns, that appear towards the top and which recur in several paintings, to a particular occasion during the harsh winter of 1955-6 when ‘cattle and sheep stood in corners of the fields and the wind blew spirals in the wool on the rears of the sheep.’[5] He has also related them to sheep’s tails blowing in the wind.[6] It is likely, however, that this work predates the winter of 1955-6 and, in any case, as the artist has himself acknowledged,[7] these forms are closely related to the stylised depictions of breaking waves that he included in some of the works he made in Cornwall between 1952 and 1954.


Regardless of these putative external sources, this work also demonstrates Frost’s formal concerns of the mid 1950s. Like many of his contemporaries, in particular Roger Hilton with whom he sustained a long correspondence while in Leeds, he was primarily concerned with the flatness of his painting. So, he sought a structure that did not create the illusion of depth but maintained the integrity of the picture surface. This was a common concern for artists in Britain, Europe and North America, but Frost was especially stimulated by the Dutch painter Constant, with whom he was familiar through Hilton. By the mid 1950s, Frost was especially known for his interest in colour, and its effect on form, and this is reflected in the hot hue of this watercolour.

The work shows some wear and tear but it is unclear to what degree some of this was deliberate. The red and black water colour is on an off white, medium weight, wove, machine made paper the surface of which was pummiced to provide a soft, fibrous texture. Wrinkles and creases all over may relate to this process. The two stains towards the right-hand side were caused by two lumps of oil paint on the back of the paper, the excess paint has been removed. Pin holes in all four corners suggest how the picture was made, while skinned areas on the back show where it has been taped to a mount in the past.

Chris Stephens
December 2000


[1] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998

[2] Ibid.

[3] Reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.63 (colour)

[4] High Yellow, Yorkshire, c.1955, reproduced in Chris Stephens, Terry frost, London 2000, p.36

[5] From a conversation with David Brown, 8 December 1974, recounted in ‘Winter 1956, Yorkshire’, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6, London 1978, pp.95-6

[6] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998

[7] Ibid.