Sir Terry Frost

Untitled Composition


Not on display

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Oil paint on paper
Image: 768 × 395 mm
Purchased 1989

Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Untitled Composition c.1955


Oil on paper 768 x 395 (30 ¼ x 15 ½)

Inscribed in pencil on back ‘↑ Frost (mid fifties I think)’, top

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

Terry Frost: Works on Paper, 25 Years: 1947-72, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London, October 1989 (25, reproduced [p.1])

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. 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 1954-6 (T05719), 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 artist’s uncertainty about the date of the work demonstrates that the inscription was added later, probably near the time of 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.

Below a blue area at the top, black and ochre vertical lines are topped by black arcs with corresponding quadrants of yellow and, in one case, orange. The areas between the verticals are brown, while the two sections in the middle at the bottom are orange and black. The marked verticality of the composition, with its series of black lines enclosing areas of strong colour associate it with a group of works which he related to his experience of the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. According to the artist, the verticality of most of these works reflected what he felt to be the enormity of that landscape. It seemed to dwarf him. This contrasted with his previous experience of the moors of west Cornwall, where one felt like a giant able to see two coasts at once.[1] The arc that crosses the composition towards the bottom is similar to that seen in other works which Frost has related to the ridges that one encounters in the Yorkshire landscape. He referred to a group of ‘ridge paintings’, one of which, Blue Winter 1956, is in the collection of the British Council.[2] However, the blue at the top suggests the sky, which would make the vertical brown section in the middle seem like an escarpment like those around Gordale Scar, for instance.

In 1998, the artist identified the yellow and orange sections towards the top of the picture as boat forms.[3] Such strong colours had appeared in earlier works, such as the otherwise different Walk Along the Quay 1950 (private collection on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield). The apparent contradiction between the different putative sources for this work highlights the danger of the artist’s willingness to associate his abstract paintings with particular places or even specific occasions. His experience of St Ives harbour or the Yorkshire landscape may have provided him with the formal vocabulary for his work, but the paintings remain, first and foremost, abstract. This work reflects his concern in the mid 1950s with the achievement of a flat picture, devoid of illusionary space, and of a sense of scale that may derive from the strong verticality. These were concerns which he shared with colleagues in St Ives and elsewhere in Britain and with painters in Europe and North America. Abstract painting dominated by a grid was a feature of the work of Frost’s close friends William Scott and Roger Hilton, and of the French artists with whom they associated Alfred Manessier and Roger Bissière. At the same time, Peter Lanyon, another friend in St Ives, made vertical abstract paintings to describe the phenomenological experience of landscape.

In the past this work seems to have been not terribly well cared for. The paper is creased, especially at the corners, and cockled, and the back was marked with studio dirt and splashes of paint. It was made with oil colour washes; the medium has penetrated the cream, medium weight, slightly textured, wove paper and has discoloured and oxidised on the back. The paper has also slightly discoloured. Holes in all four corners show that it was pinned up for painting.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[2] Reproduced in Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.38
[3] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998


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