Sir Terry Frost

Khaki and Lemon


In Tate Britain

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
frame: 803 × 675 × 58 mm
Purchased 1959

Display caption

In the 1950s Frost developed an abstract art based on personal experiences in front of nature. He moved from St Ives to Yorkshire where the majestic landscape of the Dales led him to make works that expressed his sense of the enormity of the place. Many such works have a central polygon, as here, but about this work Frost wrote that the ‘theme grew out of my experience of being in the North, the subject cannot be fixed to any one moment’.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Khaki and Lemon 1956


Oil on canvas 762 x 635 (30 x 25)

Inscribed on back in black oil paint ‘Khaki & Lemon | Oct. 56 | Terry Frost’ top right

Purchased from the Executors of E.C. Gregory (Grant-in-Aid) 1959

Purchased from the artist through the Leicester Galleries by E.C. Gregory 1958

4th International Art Exhibition of Japan, Tokyo and tour, May-November 1957 (no number)
Keith Vaughan and Terry Frost, Leicester Galleries, London, June 1958 (not in cat.)
Gregory Memorial Exhibition, Leeds City Art Gallery, March-April 1960 (10)

Tate Gallery Report 1959-60, London 1960, p.18
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.192

John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.260
Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.42 (colour)

A black hexagon in the khaki field seems to open on to a paler area beyond. The illusionistic space thus created is blocked off, however, by dribbles of very thin paint running down the canvas. The suggestion and denial of pictorial space is typical of Frost’s work of the 1950s. Some of the long, thin vertical sections demarcated by these dark rivulets have been filled with strong colour: the lemon yellow of the title, violet, blue, orange, white and red. Over it all a thin white area at the top of the composition suggests a horizon and so a landscape.

The hexagon recurred in many of the paintings which Terry Frost made towards the end of his tenure as Gregory Fellow (1954-6) at the University of Leeds and, afterwards, as a teacher at Leeds College of Art. Khaki and Lemon belonged to the publisher E.C. Gregory who had instituted the Fellowships. The artist told the Tate Gallery a few years later that the painting was ‘just one of a series I did on that theme in 1956-7, a theme which grew out of the experience of being in the North, the subject cannot be fixed at any one moment’.[1] In retrospect he associated the advent of the hexagonal motif with a particular experience. This was in keeping with Harold Rosenberg’s claim that recent American abstract painting relied upon the artists’ ‘creation of private myths’.[2] He explained the genesis of Red, Black and White, 1956 (private collection),[3] the first painting in which the form appears:

I went to Herbert Read’s to lunch ... It snowed like hell ... [but] I was so keen to go that I took my old Bedford van out and pushed off towards Stonegrave. Tough and rather hazardous drive nearly left the road several times, couldn’t see the road from the verges or fields as all was level white drifts when I got out towards Herbert’s. After lunch we went for a walk ... and strolled or struggled through snow so deep it came over the tops of the wellingtons; the angle of the hill seemed about 45º & we had to lean to walk & counter the slope. It was a clear bright day & I looked up & saw the white sun spinning on the top of a copse. Afterwards and now, I think, I thought I saw a Naples yellow blinding circle spinning on top of black verticals. The sensation was true, I was spellbound & of course when I tried to look again ‘it’ had gone. Just a sun & a copse on the brow of a hill covered in snow.[4]

The resultant painting reflects this experience with a series of black verticals against a white field topped by a black hexagon to represent the spinning sun. In that work, as in Khaki and Lemon, the yellow appears as a vertical band of colour within the black structure.

It seems likely that this initial genesis spurred the series of paintings based on the hexagon but, in subsequent compositions, the form had lost these original, external associations. A number, in which the polygonal form is looser, are striking for their strong orange hue and the robust working of the paint, which was applied loosely and thickly to rough canvas or even sacking.[5] Others, like Kahaki and Lemon, are dark with interpolations of strong colour, the more sombre colouring demonstrating their distance from the original moment of inspiration. In the most painterly the vertical structure was achieved by allowing paint to run down the canvas in a series of drips. If Red, Black and White, 1956 is – like Winter 1956, Yorkshire (Tate Gallery T01924) - dateable to the winter of 1955-6 it seems likely most of the hexagon paintings were made in 1956. Khaki and Lemon is inscribed October. Other, similarly dark, works are visible in photographs of Frost’s St Ives studio and, as the artist returned to Cornwall for the summer vacation, this probably indicates that they were made between June and September 1956.[6] Frost also produced prints on this theme, including Composition, 1957 (Tate P77162).

Many of the other works of the series are based on a rigid network of black lines. In Khaki and Lemon, however, most of the verticals are actually long dribbles of very liquid paint and the structure is restricted to the upper part of the heavily painted hexagon. These dribbles have many drying cracks because they were over-thinned by the artist to achieve that effect. Apart from the black hexagon, the rest of the paint is also fairly thin. It was applied to a pale ground which is visible in the central area. In 1995 a small tear in the canvas was mended and some small associated losses were filled and retouched.[7] The canvas is framed in a butt-jointed timber frame of a type associated with Ben Nicholson and preferred by many artists in St Ives.

Frost’s hexagonal paintings typify a lot of non-representational painting around 1956 in their combination of a relatively rigid structure with thickly applied, or fluid, paint. The proliferation of this kind of painting was demonstrated by the works that were shown in the Redfern Gallery’s 1957 exhibition Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract (a demonstration of the effect in Britain of French Tachisme and American Abstract Expressionism), amongst which was one of Frost’s polygonal pieces. Patrick Heron, reviewing the show for a New York audience, singled the work out for praise, highlighting its synthesis of a Tachiste formlessness and a more rigid structure:

Among the best paintings here were Frosts: a grill of single, taut, parallel dribbles running vertically from top to bottom of his canvases is the frame upon which he hangs his spatial illusion now. There is a fight in his present works between the easy surface unity of the Tachist and a drawn geometric structure – a sharply drawn hexagonal form existing behind the curtain of phenomenally long vertical dribbles.[8]

Like many of the works in the exhibition, the combination in Frost’s work of shallow depth and parallel lines might have suggested a sense of imprisonment, and thus spoken to the contemporary themes of subjective and collective anxiety.

Another similar painting was reproduced a few months later in an article by Heron which warned against ‘the dangers of the “international parish”’ and the consequent ‘compulsion toward the monotonies of mass production (of Tachist variants, for instance)’.[9] Again, Heron compared Frost’s work favourably with the products of Parisian Tachisme. ‘In Frost’s new work’, he wrote,

an overtly geometric (and somehow symbolic) form lies involved in the downward-moving rain of pigment gestures. What is excitingly ambiguous about the spatial meaning of a Tachist surface is retained in Frost’s recent canvases ... But, in addition to such qualities, there is a broad compositional structural statement, lying behind the bead curtain of dribbles, which gives the picture that power and punch, that three-dimensional focus and concentration of space that no purely Tachist picture ever exhibits.[10]

Specifically, Heron compared such paintings as Khaki and Lemon with the work of Sam Francis, an American in Paris. However, he saw Francis’s fluid abstracts derived from nature as lacking the structural element that underlay Frost’s dribbling. This fluid quality of Frost’s was shared with Heron’s own painting of 1956-7 and the common source was surely Francis, whose work had first been shown in London in 1953.[11]

It is possible that, despite this earlier knowledge of Francis, the predominance of dribbling in the work of both British painters at that time, was in part determined by the exhibition Modern Art in the United States shown at the Tate Gallery at the beginning of 1956. Though Jackson Pollock’s painting had been seen in Britain before, this was the first time that work by a number of Abstract Expressionists was to be seen ‘in the flesh’. Frost had first been associated with ‘American Action painting’, as defined by Harold Rosenberg, by Lawrence Alloway in 1954 and had been aware of art in Paris and New York for some time.[12] The opportunity to see at first hand the works which previously had only been known through reproduction or reputation, surely exercised an influence on British artists. In particular, the American artists’ apparent interest in the shallow pictorial space which Heron had promoted as the key to good contemporary painting must have introduced the notion of an international aesthetic. Khaki and Lemon epitomises Heron’s preferred ambiguous space. The central hexagon creates an illusionistic opening into the painting which the ‘bead curtain’ of dribbles then blocks off, reasserting the authority of the picture surface. The runs of liquid paint are marks that were both intentional and out of the artist’s control.

From 1957, Frost’s work became less geometrically structured. Photographs show that his 1958 Leicester Gallery exhibition consisted of works in which broad calligraphic forms stretched across the field of the canvas or board. Khaki and Lemon was shown in the window of the gallery during that display, suggesting perhaps that it may have been one of the last of its kind. It was bought from there by E.C. Gregory, director of the art publishers Lund Humphries, who was a friend of the artist and, as patron of the Gregory Fellowship that Frost held in Leeds from 1954-6, also his sponsor.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Letter to Tate Gallery, 15 June 1959, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[2] Harold Rosenberg, ‘American Action Painting’, Artnews, vol.51, no.8, 1952
[3] Reproduced in Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.41 (colour)
[4] Manuscript notes sent to Colin Painter 1977, Tate Gallery Archive 7919.3.5
[5] E.g. Leeds Painting, 1954-6, private collection, reproduced in Stephens 2000, p.47 (col.)
[6] Photographs by Brian Seed, Tate Gallery Archive photographic collection
[7] Tate Gallery conservation files
[8] Patrick Heron, ‘London’, Arts, vol.31, no.9, June 1957, p.63
[9] Patrick Heron, ‘London’, Arts, vol.32, no.1, October 1957, p.16
[10] Ibid., p.17
[11] Opposing Forces, Institute of Contemporary Arts, January-February 1953
[12] Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, pp.4, 18

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