Trevor Bell

Extreme Values


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Trevor Bell 1930–2017
Ink and gouache on paper
Support: 723 × 702 mm
Presented by the artist 2011


Extreme Values 1959 is an early work on paper by the English painter Trevor Bell. Executed in black ink, it consists of roughly painted lines along with more solidly coloured areas made up of feathery brushstrokes. A ‘u’ shape occupies the upper half of the paper, with three dots between its stems; the curve of the ‘u’ is echoed in a line leading across the bottom of the paper into a solid shape in the bottom left-hand corner. Another, smaller solid rectangle appears towards the upper left-hand corner.

In both this work and the associated The One from Many 1959 (Tate T13394), the variety of pressure and amount of ink used in the different strokes creates different mark-making effects across the composition, all picked out starkly in black ink against the white of the paper. A larger work executed in oil on canvas, Forces 1962 (Tate T13393), is further representative of the work Bell was producing in this period.

Extreme Values and The One from Many were made in St Ives, Cornwall, and both demonstrate the strength and importance of the calligraphic approach to mark-making to Bell’s career. Japanese calligraphy was a common influence among artists in St Ives at the time and the spare, bold gestures in ink of The One from Many indicate Bell’s interest – shared by many of his contemporaries in 1950s Cornwall – in East Asian traditions and related ideas of spirituality and mysticism, and particularly how they relate to artistic production. This interest was encouraged by the reading of such texts as the German professor of philosophy Eugen Herrigel’s influential book Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in 1948, and the visit of the Japanese exponent of Buddhism D.T. Suzuki, whom Bell met at Bernard Leach’s pottery in St Ives in the late 1950s. Bell later recalled that Suzuki seemed to be ‘putting words around the feelings I had as a painter’ (Bell, interview with Sarah Fox Pitt, Tallahassee 1981, quoted in Knowles 2009, p.53). If the gestural lines in The One from Many are reminiscent of calligraphy, in Extreme Values the ‘u’ shape is similar to a form that appeared in several of Bell’s works of that time which he related to Italian ‘piazze’ (public squares), such as Il Campo in Siena (see To Tuscany 1959, University of Leeds, Leeds).

Trevor Bell was a member of the third generation of artists who gathered in St Ives in the second half of the 1950s, producing non-representational paintings inspired by the landscape. After moving to Florida in the early 1970s, he developed a form of abstract painting inspired by external sources in response to the tropical climate and his experience of observing space launches. While working in Florida, and after returning to live in Britain in 1997, Bell continued to develop his work in both large, shaped canvases and a sequence of works on paper, largely detached from the artistic mainstream.

Further reading
Allys Palladino-Craig (ed.), Trevor Bell: A British Painter in America, Tallahassee 2003.
Elizabeth Knowles (ed.), Trevor Bell, Bristol 2009.

Chris Stephens
March 2011
Arthur Goodwin
October 2018

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