Sir Terry Frost

Green, Black and White Movement


Not on display

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1092 × 851 mm
frame: 1162 × 920 × 63 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1971

Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Green, Black and White Movement 1951


Oil on canvas 1115 x 864 (43 7/8 x 34)

Inscribed on stretcher ‘Abstract Green and Black Movement 51’ and ‘Terry Frost’

Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1971


Acquired by Ben Nicholson by exchange with the artist 1951; returned to the artist, from whom purchased through the Leicester Galleries, London, by Howard Bliss by February 1952; Waddington Galleries by 1964, London; bought from them by Alistair McAlpine, London 1964, by whom presented to the Contemporary Art Society

?Leicester Galleries winter exhibition, 1951
Seventeen Collectors, Tate Gallery, London, March-April 1952 (159, as Movement in Green, Black and White)
Terry Frost: Retrospective Exhibition, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, April-May 1964, York City Art Gallery, May, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, June, Bradford City Art Gallery, July (6, as Green and Black Movement)
St Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1985 (100, reproduced p.181)

Patrick Heron, ‘Space in Colour: Notes on Nine British Painters’, Arts Digest, vol.29, no.12, March 1955, p.10, reproduced p.11
Adrian Heath, ‘Recollections and Movements’ in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.16, reproduced p.51 (colour)
Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, p.118, reproduced p.119, pl.43
Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, pp.26-9, 33, reproduced p.27 (colour)

Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, between pp.24 and 25, pl.8, as Movement: Green, Black and White

Green, Black and White Movement belongs to a body of works which marked a fundamental shift in Terry Frost’s artistic production. It is one of a series of paintings based on the movement of boats in St Ives harbour which, with the associated series entitled Walk Along the Quay, signalled the artist’s development of a form of abstraction derived from his subjective experience of the external world.

In the late 1940s Frost’s work was affected by two contrasting influences. From 1947 to 1950 he studied at Camberwell School of Art where, under the professorship of William Coldstream, the analytical figuration of the Euston Road School was advocated. However, since 1946 he and his family had been based in St Ives, Cornwall, an established ‘artist’s colony’ then developing a reputation for modernist practice. There he came into contact with such senior artists as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and their younger followers, including Peter Lanyon and John Wells. Through them he became versed in the work and theories of the constructivist tradition which, in St Ives, was becoming associated with a form of abstraction based on landscape sources. He had originally gone to the town on the advice of the painter Adrian Heath, who had encouraged Frost to paint when they met in a German prisoner of war camp during World War Two.[1] At the end of the 1940s and in the early 1950s, Heath’s London studio was the focus for a group of more purely abstract artists, who signalled their allegiance to the development of constructivism with their label ‘Constructionists’.[2] Frost recalled that his knowledge of modernist art, particularly Russian Constructivism, was expanded through his proximity to Heath, who was gathering material for his short history of abstract painting: Abstract Art: Its Origins and Meanings (London 1953).[3] Both of these modernist formations, in St Ives and London, exercised a fundamental influence on Frost that is registered in this work.

The artist explained that the composition of melon slice forms scissoring their way down the canvas in Green, Black and White Movement was based upon his observation of boats rocking in St Ives harbour but was generated with the use of geometrical formulae, specifically, the Golden Section.[4] Formulated by Euclid and named by Leonardo, this is an ideal geometrical proportion, favoured by artists and architects since Antiquity, which is denoted numerically by the ratio 1:1.618; that is to say that the Golden Section of a line is a point that marks 0.618 of its length. Since this proportion had been identified in nature it became associated with the idea of an harmonious relationship with the universe. For this painting, Frost measured certain proportions and joined them by pencil lines drawn on the canvas and strengthened with charcoal. These produced a network, still visible through the thin green paint, some of which provided the straight lines of the main composition. The proportional system allowed for the subdivision of the composition so that a square was established at the base; this overlaps another, similarly determined, at the top of the canvas. The edge of the uppermost ‘melon-slice’ form falls on a line running from the top left hand corner to the point where the horizontal line, which sub-divides the lower part of the field to form this square and determines the second slice, crosses the right hand edge. Two diagonals, one from that point and another from the Golden Section converge on the mid-point of the left hand side to provide the third and fourth slices. The fifth falls on a line joining two Golden Section points, and the sixth on a line linking the right hand Golden Section and the point on the left edge that separates off the upper square. A line from the equivalent point on the right hand side generates the final segment. Thus the rocking boats follow an uneven zig-zag from the top left hand corner to the bottom left. Frost explained that he used string to determine the straight lines and that the arcs were defined by slackening the string off.[5] Learnt from Victor Pasmore, this technique, which echoed the slackening of mooring ropes at high tide, ensured a proportional relationship between the straight lines and their arcs. Proportional divisions defined the rectangular areas on the left-hand side and the prow-forms that occur in various places in the composition. The linear pattern also influenced the areas of differing densities of green in the main field of the painting. This includes a long arc, which is part of a circle the diameter of which is the height of the canvas and which has its centre half way along the white vertical.

The pattern of lines is augmented by creases in the canvas and related cracking in the paint surface. In particular, when the work was acquired by the Tate Gallery, the canvas had evident folds across the major horizontals indicating that it had been folded into four at sometime in the past. There were other heavy lines and it is possible that it had also been rolled.[6] The effect of this on the condition of the painting was exacerbated by the fact that the canvas appeared to have been impregnated with wax which had become brittle. The artist was able to explain some of its chequered history. He wrote to the gallery:

The canvas was prepared by me & if I remember correctly I was using rabbit skin glue & a half chalk ground & I completely messed up the ground by making the glue much too strong. In fact it cracked as soon as I had painted the picture & I did another version which was sold to a chap in Cheltenham.[7] This time it was painted on shop canvas, but I never really liked the other version. I did try scrubbing the rest of the canvas in the bath to remove the glue (because in those days I was short of canvas). However, I could not remove the ground at all with hot water or anything, so I decided that in spite of the cracks the 1st version of Green Black & White Movement was permanent.[8]

The work was generally thinly painted, though one might speculate on whether the translucent quality of the green field was in part the result of Frost’s bath tub scrubbing. It seems likely that the few areas of thicker paint, particularly the more scumbled impasto of some of the boat forms, were painted after this rough treatment. The surface was also scraped and repainted in some places. On acquisition by the Tate it was noted that there had been some retouching towards the top right hand corner and that the stretcher was warped.[9]

If the artist had wanted to destroy the painting, he soon relented: it was chosen by Ben Nicholson in an exchange of works and exhibited at the end of that year. Frost recalled these events as a crucial turning point in his career:

Ben had that diamond painting over his damp patch on the wall at Carbis Bay. I think it was 1926, a very early painting and he swapped it with me for my painting with the boat shapes which the Tate have got now. We shook hands on it. I was very pleased. But Philip James [Director of Visual Art, Arts Council] had been down and I got a letter the next day from old man Brown of the Leicester Galleries and it said ‘we would like your green and black and white painting, your pink one and your grey one’. He listed the three that Philip James had seen so I had to go round to Ben and say ‘I’ve had this letter from the Leicester Galleries’. ... Ben said ‘do you more good to have a show in London’, so we shook hands and he released me from the deal.[10]

Though demonstrably based on geometrical patterns, Green, Black and White Movement also derived from the artist’s experience of a place. Frost confirmed that ‘the theme was positively the space changes made by the elements on the boats in the harbour [in St Ives]. Though at that time the division of the canvas was geometrical’.[11] The ‘elements’ of the boats were their rocking hulls, the swaying masts that defined invisible arcs in the air and the taut or slackened ropes tying them to their moorings. In 1954, he published an account of a related, though distinct and later work, Blue Movement 1953 (Vancouver Art Gallery).[12] He wrote:

I have recently completed a ‘blue movement’ painting. I had spent a number of evenings looking over the harbour at St Ives in Cornwall. Although I had been observing a multiplicity of movement during those evenings, they all evoked a common emotion or mood – a state of delight in front of nature. On one particular blue twilit evening, I was watching what I can only describe as a synthesis of movement and counter-movement. That is to say the rise and fall of the boats, the space drawing of the mastheads, the opposing movements of the incoming sea and the outblowing off-shore wind. – all this plus the predominant feel of blue in the evening and the static brown of the foreshore, generated an emotional state which was to find expression in the painting Blue Movement.

It was characteristic that Frost explained the painting as an attempt to recapture the emotion he felt at a single moment of inspiration. Lawrence Alloway, in the introduction to Nine Abstract Artists, noted the relationship of this ‘intuitive way of working’ to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, ‘who thought that emotion in the artist produced an art-work which then produced the same emotion in the observer’.[13]

Despite the artist’s association of each painting with a single moment, Green, Black and White Movement continued an established body of works derived from a similar source. The development of an abstract composition from the forms of a harbour had first appeared following a visit to Mullion Cove, on the Lizard peninsula, with Lanyon in 1949. Frost produced a painting in which the steep cliffs, the view through the harbour and out to sea, and the slackened mooring ropes of the boats form a semi-abstract composition based on geometric proportion.[14] It was, however, the series of works which culminated in Walk Along the Quay, 1950 (estate of Adrian Heath on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield) which secured the artist’s reputation for abstract work.[15] Frost’s account of the painting’s genesis demonstrates its proximity to the Movement series:

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.[16]

One might find even more representational elements in Green, Black and White Movement, in which the angle of the boat forms creates a sense of rocking motion and the lines coming from their ends suggest their mooring ropes. The translucent green alludes to the seawater and this was noticed by Patrick Heron who saw in the subject matter a modernist treatment of pictorial space. ‘Even without colour’, he wrote, ‘one feels the water surface (which now admits the eye deep down into submarine gloom, and now rebuts it, keeping it at the surface) implied throughout the surface of this picture. All the shapes stop the eye, as a bat stops a ball, cleanly and finally at a given depth in the imagined space in the painting.’[17]

Heron’s critique demonstrates how Frost’s approach could be read in different ways. As a painter, Heron was also closely associated with St Ives and, as a critic, he promoted a formalist analysis of painting in which the illusion of shallow space was the benchmark of modernist quality. Until 1956, he also campaigned for the retention of a degree of figuration, in defiance of the group led by Pasmore, and his reading of Green, Black and White Movement reveals his desire to associate it with such priorities. Introducing Frost’s work to a New York audience, he wrote:

A painter of marked architectonic virtue, Frost ... [is] a pupil of Pasmore, his “brush-touch” still resembles Pasmore’s. But Frost’s concern with space behind the canvas, and with a landscape subject-matter from which he derives his forms, alienates him from the Pasmore of today. The limpid, swift clarity of the banana-forms in Movement in Green, Black and White, 1951, evokes the bobbing of moored rowing-boats in St Ives Harbour.[18]

An abstract manner based on landscape sources was synonymous with the art of St Ives in the early 1950s and was most successfully embodied in the work of Peter Lanyon whose attitude to landscape had an important influence on Frost. Lanyon’s development of a post-Cubist landscape painting was based upon a subjective, temporal experience of a place which clearly affected Frost’s description of Walk Along the Quay. Frost recalled how Lanyon influenced the way he saw the landscape:

he taught me to experience landscape ... you lay down in the landscape, you looked up into a tree ... you walked over a landscape so that you understood its shape ... you walked over the hills and the high ground so that you knew what was above and below the forms you were going to draw, and all the while you’re feeling those forms all through, you’re travelling through the landscape.[19]

In a manner that referred back to the Cubists’ multi-directional portrayal of figures and still-lifes, Lanyon produced paintings such as Porthleven, 1951 (Tate N06151), the shifting forms of which derived from his movement through the village. Frost’s painting of St Ives harbour achieves a similar end while reworking a picturesque scene much favoured by the older, more academic artists of the town. In it space is ambiguous, as the viewer seems to be looking across at, and down upon, the boats. Both examples demonstrate a redefinition of landscape as a reflection of the artist’s sense of being in a place as much as a depiction of a place.

Frost had used a similar idea of progress across the picture surface in his first abstract painting, Madrigal, 1949 (Leamington Spa Art Gallery),[20] which derived from his reading of W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name, that begins ‘O lurcher-loving collier, black as night’. The artist later explained how he began by sub-dividing the surface using the Golden Section and then used colour to express the emotion of the poem; the painting also clearly alludes to a landscape.[21] The conception of the painting as narrative became a key characteristic of his approach as did the attempt at the creation of an empathetic emotional response in the viewer. Both were in contrast to the work of the other group of modernist artists with which Frost, through such paintings as Green, Black and White Movement, was associated: the Constructionists.

Though the use of geometry to determine the form of a painting was common amongst many painters in Britain - including several in St Ives, such as John Wells and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham - such methods were particularly characteristic of the Constructionists’ approach. This group, which included Heath, Pasmore, Robert Adams, Kenneth and Mary Martin and Anthony Hill, first showed together in the London Group exhibition in February 1951 and again at the Artists International Association’s Abstract Paintings, Sculptures, Mobiles later that year. Walk Along the Quay can be seen in photographs of the latter exhibition, where its association with the work of the other artists obscured its picturesque origins.[22] Frost’s principal debt was to Pasmore who, as his tutor, had encouraged him in his pursuit of a modernist manner in defiance of the dominant beliefs at Camberwell. Madrigal followed shortly after Pasmore’s much publicised adoption of an abstract style and the development of the composition of such works as Green, Black and White Movement echoes Pasmore’s production between 1948 and 1950. It is particularly noteworthy that Pasmore’s use of the semi-circle in collages such as Abstract in White, Grey and Ochre, 1949 (Tate Gallery T00094), itself a possible reference to the Cubist depiction of guitars, is echoed in Frost’s paintings.

The Golden Section was employed by the architect Le Corbusier and explained by Herbert Read in The Meaning of Art (republished in paperback in 1947),[23] but Frost’s knowledge of it and similar formulae originated from the treatment of compositions by William Coldstream (Professor of Painting at Camberwell) and his followers. That the use of such a methodology was passed from the advocates of a figurative manner to a group made up of the most extreme abstract artists is an indication of the importance of geometry in art at that time. Like those around him, Frost read the theories of geometric proportion in two key texts: Jay Hambidge’s The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry and, later, Matila Ghyka’s A Practical Handbook of Geometrical Composition and Design.[24] His knowledge of abstract art was broadened at this time through reading, as he enjoyed access to the extensive library of Adrian Heath, then researching his book, Abstract Painting: Its Origin and Meaning.[25]

Frost’s interest in Russian Constructivism was probably informed by discussions with Nicholson, Hepworth and Lanyon, who had been very close to Naum Gabo during the war. Such was his commitment to the work of his London-based associates that, like many of them, he made several three-dimensional constructions, one of which was included in the first of a series of exhibitions held in Heath’s Fitzroy Street studio in March 1952.[26] However, Frost’s retention of an external source in the majority of his works positioned him on the periphery of this group. In July 1953 he was clearly anxious that such references would lead to his exclusion from one of the group’s exhibitions, but was reassured by Kenneth Martin, who wrote, ‘I doubt whether you’d be excluded’, while offering a rather unenthusiastic critique of Frost’s work.[27] The group was already fragmenting when Alloway wrote his introduction to Nine Abstract Artists (1954) in which his hesitation over Frost’s work was clear:

In St Ives they combine non-figurative theory with the practice of abstraction because the landscape is so nice nobody can quite bring themselves to leave it out of their art ... Terry Frost, more than anyone else in this book, has been influenced by St Ives. He has described how he draws his paintings out of nature. His intuitive way of working is in line with Kandinsky who thought that emotion in the artist produced an art-work which then produced emotion in the observer .. There are objections to this notion ... In this kind of painting any eccentricity can be justified by reference to the inner element, emotion.[28]

This became a persistent criticism of the art of St Ives, which should be viewed within the broader debate over abstraction and realism that ran throughout the 1950s. Frost was unrepentant, however, justifying his retention of painting over construction in a notebook in 1954:

Construction for me is cutting out the mystery part of art, it’s design for fashionable decoration (for the moment) ... The pure abstract I must admit I like, but I do not practise it for it does not seem to me to belong to us, but to be a departure from life ... and is now fast becoming academic and mannerist by the adoption of various geometric proportions all too readily at hand in the text book to the complete exclusion of any intuitive feeling.[29]

The unpredictable use of geometry in his work is thus explained by the fact that he makes intuition a priority.

One might see such a work as Green, Black and White Movement as appropriating one of the classic motifs of recent picturesque painting in Britain – boats in St Ives harbour – for a modern agenda. The retention of an external source, as advocated by Heron, signalled the desire to resist the perceived dehumanisation of the Constructionists. This is also marked by Frost’s explanation of his work as a celebration and communication of particular emotional experiences. The combination of formal abstraction and sources from nature would persist throughout his work.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.34
[2] For information on this group see Alastair Grieve, ‘Towards an Art of Environment: Exhibitions and Publications by a Group of Avant-Garde Artists in London 1951-5’, Burlington Magazine, vol.132, no.1052, November 1990, pp.773-81
[3] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.; conversation with Ronald Alley, 19 June 1972, noted in Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[6] Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Black and White Movement on Blue and Green II, 1951-2, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, reproduced in Terry Frost: Six Decades, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 2000, [p.40]
[8] Letter to Ronald Alley, undated [February 1972], Tate Gallery catalogue files
[9] Tate Gallery conservation files
[10] Interview with David Lewis, April 1979, quoted in Lewis 1994, p.52
[11] Letter to Ronald Alley, undated [February 1972]
[12] Account published in Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, pp.23-4; Blue Movement 1953, reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.61
[13] Alloway 1954, p.12
[14] Mullion Cove, c.1949, Belgrave Gallery, London, reproduced Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.22 (colour)
[15] Reproduced in Lewis 1994, p.47
[16] Notes on the St Ives years, quoted in Lewis 1994, p.49
[17] Patrick Heron, ‘Space in Colour: Nine British Painters’, Arts Digest, 15 March 1955, p.8-11
[18] Ibid.
[19] From three interviews with David Lewis 1991-3, quoted in Lewis 1994, p.39
[20] Reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.46 (colour)
[21] Lewis 1994, p.42-4
[22] Reproduced in Alastair Grieve, ‘Towards an Art of Environment: Exhibitions and Publications by a Group of Avant-Garde Artists in London 1951-5’, Burlington Magazine, vol.132, no.1052, Nov. 1990, p.775
[23] Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art, London 1931, republished 1936, 1942, 1951 and as a Penguin paperback in 1947
[24] Jay Hambidge, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, New York 1926, 2nd ed. 1948; Matila Ghyka, A Practical Handbook of Geometrical Composition and Design, London 1952
[25] Adrian Heath, Abstract Painting: Its Origin and Meaning, London 1953
[26] Construction, 1951-2, whereabouts unknown, reproduced in Lewis 1994, p.17; installation shot of exhibition, Grieve 1990, p.777
[27] Letter to Terry Frost, 21 July 1953, Tate Gallery Archive 7919.3.4
[28] Alloway 1954, pp.12-13
[29] Undated notes [c.1954] quoted in Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.33.

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