Gillian Ayres OBE, ‘Distillation’ 1957
Gillian Ayres OBE, Distillation 1957 . Tate . © Gillian Ayres

Room 10 in Walk Through British Art

1950 Abstraction in Britain

12 rooms in Walk Through British Art

Distillation

Gillian Ayres OBE, Distillation  1957

Distillation was painted partly in household enamel and partly in artist’s oil paint. Ayres applied the paint with rags and brushes, and by pouring from the can and squirting from the tube. Influenced by photographs of the North American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings, she worked on this painting while it was flat on the floor. Ayres kept the paint fluid by dissolving it with a solvent, allowing her to manipulate it rapidly and spontaneously. Her main concerns at this time were space, materials and colour, and balancing these ‘so that nothing is more important than anything else. One was into the idea of no composition...’

Gallery label, April 2019

© Gillian Ayres

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No. 12

Magda Cordell, No. 12  1960

Cordell’s paintings of women drew much critical attention at a time when American abstract expressionism and action painting was being assessed alongside European tachisme and the art brut of Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). Here Cordell’s figure appears as both earth mother and embryo shown in a state of change and renewal. Such a metaphor was common in the 1950s where the body was often depicted as fragile and at threat, both bodily and psychologically, yet Cordell was rare in having extended this idiom to encompass the female body.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II)

Dame Barbara Hepworth, Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II)  1956, edition 1959

In the 1950s Hepworth found new ways to make abstract sculpture. Having previously concentrated on carving, she began using sheet metal and string. Many artists at the time looked to her work as an endorsement of their own abstract work. However, Hepworth’s sculptures always followed the geometric rules that they favoured. The form and the title of this work (which references ancient Greek musician and poet Orpheus), bring together ideas of a harmony between modern technology, musical composition and Greek myth.

Gallery label, April 2019

© Bowness

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The Change

Ralph Rumney, The Change  1957

From the 1950s onwards Ralph Rumney was involved with a number of different European avant-garde movements. In July 1957 he co-founded the Situationist International, an anarchist group that sought to overthrow capitalism through subversive cultural acts. The Change, painted early in 1957, is constructed from randomly applied dabs of paint and a loose grid of black lines. The combination of chance marks and the ordering device of a grid has been interpreted as a visual metaphor for the interaction of the subconscious and conscious, as well as the spiritual and material.

Gallery label, August 2004

© The estate of Ralph Rumney

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August 1956 (Val d’Orcia)

Ben Nicholson OM, August 1956 (Val d’Orcia)  1956

In the 1930s Ben Nicholson was a leading figure in abstract non-representational art. During the 1950s he largely returned to still-life and landscape motifs, using flat planesof thinly painted colour to activate the composition. For the artist and critic Patrick Heron this approach appeared by the mid-1950s to be ‘too clinically precise’. He claimed to prefer an expressive ‘space-creating’ handling of paint over the ‘smooth, cold, clear, hard’ application of paint in Nicholson’s work.

Gallery label, April 2019

© Angela Verren Taunt 2020. All rights reserved, DACS

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Death and the Conquistador

Aubrey Williams, Death and the Conquistador  1959

Death and the Conquistador demonstrates Williams’s engagement with debates around abstraction in Europe and America, and its subject matter has roots in the memory of his early life in Guyana. Through the depiction of a field of bone-like shapes resembling human or animal forms, he addresses the colonisation of Latin America by the conquistadors (soldiers in the service of Spain and Portugal). Williams stated that ‘the crux of the matter… inherent in my work … has been the human predicament, especially with regard to the Guyanese situation’.

Gallery label, September 2016

© The estate of Aubrey Williams

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Black and White Movement

Sir Terry Frost, Black and White Movement  1952

Terry Frost was based in St Ives, a harbour town and a centre for abstract

art. There he made a series of works inspired by the boats in the harbour, in which diagonal and curving lines intersect. These lines echo the shapes of the boats and their rocking motion, the curves of the ropes that secured them, the arcs of the swaying masts and the small waves coming into shore.

Frost was associated with a group of ‘Constructionist’ artists committed to non-representational art. He and they frequently based works like this on geometrical proportions

such as the Golden Section.

Gallery label, February 2010

© The estate of Sir Terry Frost

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Zennor Storm

Peter Lanyon, Zennor Storm  1958

Peter Lanyon is often seen as the leading British abstract expressionist. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, he always sought to stress the fact that his paintings derived from landscapes. He painted places or, as here, the experience of being in a particular place in certain conditions. So, he used his paint to evoke the experience of being in a storm near the Cornish village of Zennor, which sits between the high moorland and the sea-cliffs.

Gallery label, February 2010

© The estate of Peter Lanyon

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White, Black and Yellow (Composition February)

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, White, Black and Yellow (Composition February)  1957

© Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust

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Vertical : January 1956

Patrick Heron, Vertical : January 1956  1956

One of Heron's early non-figurative 'tachiste' (the French word for blot or mark) paintings in which the partial influence of contemporary American and French abstract styles is evident. For Heron dispensing with figurative imagery was a liberating experience, allowing him to 'deal more directly and inventively... with every single aspect of the painting that is purely pictorial, i.e. the architecture of the canvas, the spatial interrelation of each and every touch (and stroke, or bar) of colour... with a sense of freedom quite denied to me when I still had to keep half an eye on a 'subject' The painting covers an earlier, figurative work, traces of which can be discerned.

Gallery label, September 2004

© Estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020

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Birth of Venus

Alan Davie, Birth of Venus  1955

Alan Davie’s approach to painting often involved improvisation (he was also a jazz musician). He was attracted to the idea of relying on chance and the unconscious. Davie believed art should be ‘a matter of making original magical things’. The imagery in Birth of Venus provided ‘a distinct suggestion of the primeval womb, birth place, cavern, source of fruitfulness and love’. His painting reflected a widespread interest at the time in myth and the symbols used to represent birth, procreation and death. Davie explained in 1957, ‘I paint simply to find enlightenment and revelation.’

Gallery label, April 2019

© Estate of Alan Davie

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Seedtime

Bryan Wynter, Seedtime  1958–9

The fragmented composition of Seedtime demonstrates Wynter’s interest in space, structure and movement. His paintings of the late 1940s had been dramatic representations of the Cornish landscape. While his later paintings were increasingly abstract, he explained that they were still linked to nature. ‘The landscape I live among is bare of houses, trees, people; is dominated by winds, by swift changes of weather, by moods of the sea...These elemental forces enter the painting and lend their qualities without becoming motifs.’

Gallery label, April 2019

© The estate of Bryan Wynter

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Abstract in White, Grey and Ochre

Victor Pasmore, Abstract in White, Grey and Ochre  1949

In 1948 Pasmore moved away from the poetic landscape and figure painting that he was known for, to an almost scientific exploration of abstract art. This form of art did not refer to reality and its composition was constructed according to theories of geometry and proportion. The structure of Abstract in White, Grey and Ochre is based on rotations of a rectangle. However, Pasmore used geometry as a starting point rather than as a rigid system. Newspaper – here the sports page from The Daily Worker – introduces a play between visual form and legible content.

Gallery label, April 2019

© Tate

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Spatial Form

Anthea Alley, Spatial Form  1962–3

Anthea Alley gained recognition as a painter in the 1950s, making brutalist abstract paintings, often using everyday materials such as hessian sacks. However, she is best known for her sculpture and reliefs. This is one of a series of sculptures made from machine stampings; the pieces that remain after shapes have been stamped out of the metal by machine. Alley began to work with these stampings in 1962 and used a variety of metals and patterns to create effects of transparency and movement in her sculpture, ‘dividing up air into slices, light enough to make the air round them seem solid, or heavy and stable’.

Gallery label, April 2019

© estate of Anthea Alley

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Dragonfly

Lynn Chadwick, Dragonfly  1951

Dragonfly is made up of a network of welded iron rods, with the suspended, wing-like shapes balanced by its weighted tail. This careful balancing results in a work that can move and rotate, giving the appearance of an insect hunting for prey. Despite this specific reference to the natural world and the mobile’s organic, free movement, Chadwick’s work directly reflects on the world of industry and technology. This is indicated by his use of iron and welding, and by the engineered construction of the mobile’s latticework structure. Chadwick preferred to discuss these works in terms of their form and manufacture.

Gallery label, April 2019

© The estate of Lynn Chadwick. All Rights Reserved 2020 / Bridgeman Images

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January 1957

Roger Hilton, January 1957  1957

This is one of the first works Hilton painted in St Ives following his move to Cornwall in 1956. In early 1950s he made highly abstract work that saw him associated with constructionist painters. But, at the time this work was made his painting became more improvisatory and expressionistic; the surface of the paint is broken up and lines are freely drawn. Hilton’s techniques included palette knife, brush and drawing straight from the paint tube. In 1957 he wrote ‘A creative artist is a man who is struggling with an idea … The greatest artist will be the one who most completely lets the medium shoulder the idea.’

Gallery label, April 2019

© The estate of Roger Hilton

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Orthogonal / Diagonal Composition

Anthony Hill, Orthogonal / Diagonal Composition  1954

This painting is the first of Hill's purely linear works. It can be 'read' in a number of ways. It is deliberately organized so that the junctions of the lines optically destabilize the composition, which can be broken up into lines, points, squares and triangles. Influences included earlier European abstraction, as well as Duchamp (Hill describes the work as a 'geometric readymade'). Most of Hill's subsequent abstract work has been in sculpture and relief.

Gallery label, August 2004

© Anthony Hill

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White Collage

Adrian Heath, White Collage  1954

Heath’s London home provided an informal exhibition space for artists sometimes known as constructionists. They used a variety of found materials, and their compositions were often developed through an understanding of the process of growth in plants and animals, as well through theories of proportion. Heath emphasised the physical qualities of the work by building it up with blocks of thickly applied paint. In 1954 Heath wrote ‘The thing of interest is the actual life of the work: its growth from a particular white canvas or board… It is the process, the method of development that is the life of the painting.’

Gallery label, April 2019

© The estate of Adrian Heath

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Home from Home

Robyn Denny, Home from Home  1959

© Robyn Denny

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Mobile Reflector

Kenneth Martin, Mobile Reflector  1955

Martin adopted abstraction in the late 1940s, constructing his first mobiles in 1951. He was part of a small group reviving pre-war ideas of a non-representational art. This is one of the first in his series of Mobile Reflectors, in which geometrical plates were suspended and balanced from rods. The slightest current of air causes movement so the mobiles are ever changing. Martin referred to his mobiles as ‘drawings in space’ using repeated shapes and complimentary colour combinations, and stated that the resulting shadows were as important as the work itself.

Gallery label, September 2016

© The estate of Kenneth Martin

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Paul Feiler, Morvah  1958

In the 1950s St Ives, a tourist and fishing town, was a centre for abstract painting. Like many St Ives artists, Feiler developed a form of painting which struck a balance between abstract form, the material of the paint itself and suggestions of landscape or nature. Close to Morvah, a village west of St Ives, are dramatic sea-cliffs and the movement of vertical elements in his paintings may refer to them. Feiler said he sought to express in paint ‘what I felt the world around me looked like’ and referred to ‘the sea and the rocks seen from a great height’.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Art in this room

Distillation
Gillian Ayres OBE Distillation 1957
No. 12
Magda Cordell No. 12 1960
Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II)
Dame Barbara Hepworth Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II) 1956, edition 1959
The Change
Ralph Rumney The Change 1957
August 1956 (Val d’Orcia)
Ben Nicholson OM August 1956 (Val d’Orcia) 1956
Death and the Conquistador
Aubrey Williams Death and the Conquistador 1959

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