(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Making Waves in St Ives

Welcome to the Art on Tour blog! This is the place where we share interesting news about all things Art on Tour, as well as information about Swindon’s wonderful collection of modern and contemporary British art. Right now, we’re half way through a series of blogposts celebrating Swindon Museum and Art Gallery‘s virtual exhibition ‘Modern British Art: A Story’, which you can view right HERE!

The blogposts are for those of you who want just a little bit more information than the exhibition word count allows. So far, previous posts (below) have covered the Camden Town Group, the Bloomsbury Group, Vorticism, Unit One, the Seven and Five Society, Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and Realism… Yet, there’s still so much more to explore! This week: The beloved St Ives School…

The term ‘St Ives School’ refers to the artists associated with St Ives from the 1940s-60s, when it was the centre for modern and abstract developments in art. Though notable artists visited the town as early as the 1920s, it was at the outbreak of World War II that Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth settled there. Well-acquainted with modern European movements, and already working in abstract styles, they became the heart of an artistic community that broke new ground in British art (check out The Advance of Abstraction for more on Nicholson). In the 1950s, a number of younger artists who shared their interest in abstraction joined them.  

Terry Frost moved to Cornwall in 1946 and became a key member of the St Ives School. In 1950 he worked as an assistant to Hepworth and took a studio next to Nicholson. Grey, Red and Black Verticals is an abstract painting characterised by bold black and red forms. It is, in part, a celebration of Frost’s love of the colour black. The thick black stripes painted onto a horizontal cream wash evoke a particularly powerful presence.

Terry Frost, Grey, Red and Black Verticals, 1962

Though the title alludes to the formal qualities of the work, it is not completely devoid of narrative reference. Frost asserted that the forms suspended from the top of the canvas were inspired by the three goddesses in Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Judgement of Paris, at the National Gallery.

Another significant artist associated with the St Ives School is Roger Hilton. November 1955 was painted just before his first Christmas in St Ives, and was inspired by snow laying on muddy fields. The bleak winter landscape is suggested with simple lines and planes of yellow, white, black and brown. Hilton captures a scene with which many of us can relate without being too descriptive, showing a push and pull between abstraction and representation.

Roger Hilton, November 1955, 1955

Artworks such as these were experimental when they were painted in the 1950s, and ’60s, and we often still struggle to understand them today… So ingrained is the need to understand a narrative, or at the very least a sense of pictorial space! It’s important to remember that in an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing world, artists strove to find new visual languages to express themselves and their surroundings. St Ives was a place where artists could push boundaries like never before. Painting could be as much about colour, shape and line as it could a landscape, person or still life.

Before I sign off, a quick head’s up to look out for our Christmas edition of Art Snaps, which will include more information about Hilton’s November 1955. Of course, do also look out for our next blogpost Pop and Prosperity. Thanks for reading!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

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