Like the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, whose “unwellness” fascinated theatre audiences for many years, the painter Roger Hilton combined a quintessential British cocktail of artistic genius, bleak humour and the gradual disintegration of bodily functions. Hilton’s last years are documented in hand-written letters to family and friends, published posthumously as Roger Hilton: Night Letters (Newlyn Orion Gallery 1980), with an introduction by his friend Michael Canney. Direct and uninhibited, these writings—mostly to his wife Rose—reveals a man both sensitive and aware of his shortcomings, and are a surprising pleasure to read. Several could not be published as they are so rude about fellow-artists, critics and friends. Suffering from alcoholism and peripheral neuritis, Hilton resisted efforts to admit him to the Maudsley hospital. His day to day needs were not complicated—crayons and paper for drawing, whiskey, batteries for his radio, cigarettes, and fuel for his lighter. He drew incessantly, rapid sketches capturing a zest for life and reflecting an obsession with the female body, even as his own body began to give up. What Hilton made of his life is also what invests his art with remarkable qualities—“make of your mistakes a strength rather than a weakness”—and he was unsentimental to the end: “And let there be no moaning at the bar, when I set out to sea.”
When Adrian and Angela Flowers first visited Hilton’s studio in St. Ives, in May 1959, the painter was relatively young, in good health and evidently pleased to have company and conversation. He was not yet resident in Cornwall; this was an exploratory visit. The Flowers had brought their two young sons, Adam and Matthew, while Angela was pregnant, expecting her third son, Daniel. The artist Denis Mitchell was also present. The photographs taken by Adrian [Job No. 3169] show a sparsely-furnished, white-painted studio, with bare wooden floorboards, the walls lined with abstract paintings. The furniture consisted of two tables, a single-bar electric fire and an old car seat, with Hilton seated on a Victorian chair, and Mitchell perched on a beer crate. Balding and wearing glasses, wearing a smart check jacket, Hilton holds court, clearly in good form. However, in little over a decade, he would become a virtual invalid.
During his lifetime, Hilton drew and painted, not as an enjoyable recreation, but compulsively, with a chaotic sexual frustration often bubbling over in his work. His paintings are the visual equivalent of the poetry of W.S. Graham, one of the many friends with whom he fell out. Graham described Hilton as ‘artist of the astringent, the uncharming, the unkitchened’, but Hilton’s instinctive grasp of the language of abstraction places him in the vanguard of progressive post-war British art. Explanatory labels in galleries and museums may attempt to sanitise Hilton’s failings. However, notwithstanding—or perhaps because of—his personality, his art remains compelling and visceral. Almost the first sentence spoken by his widow Rose, in the video documentary of a retrospective exhibition at the Newlyn Gallery, refers to Hilton’s depiction of the female body. She explains that he was trying to ‘look’ at the human figure in a new way, and it was not insulting to women. Nonetheless, after his death, it took her almost a decade to build up confidence to return to painting. When she met Hilton, she had been one of the Royal College’s most promising graduates.
Born in Northwood, Middlesex, Hilton came from a middle-class immigrant family. Originally from Hamburg, his father Oscar was a medical doctor, and the author of The Health of the Child; a Manual for Mothers and Nurses (1915), a book which decried the tendency for fashionable mothers to ‘sacrifice the welfare of the child to the pleasures of self-indulgence’, advocating instead breast-feeding (with precise instructions on caring for breasts and nipples). The book was dedicated to the author’s three sons ‘John, Roger and Michael’. During WWI, because of anti-German feeling in Britain, the family changed their name from Hildesheim to Hilton. Educated at Bishop’s Stortford College, Roger studied art at the Slade School under Henry Tonks, and between 1931 and 1938 spent a total of two years in Paris, during which time he studied at the Ranson college, an offshoot of the Academie Julian, in Montparnasse. He read French literature, and discovered Parisian cuisine and art. During the Second World War Hilton served in the army, afterwards teaching at the Bryanstown School in Dorset, and the Central School of Arts. Although he painted his first abstract work in 1950, by the end of the decade, reflecting his admiration for Matisse, Laurens and Picasso, he had returned to figurative art. Hilton developed his own personal visual language, one based on drawing, where mistakes were not erased but remained very much part of the work. In keeping with one of his early heroes, Piet Mondrian, the colours were simple; blue, red, black, white and green.
It is difficult to dislike the paintings of Hilton. Colourful, energetic and brimming over with vitality, works such as Oy Yoi Yoi are a brave attempt to lift post-war British painting out of an introverted and dull mindset. In spite of his chauvinism and frequent irascibility, it seems to have been difficult to dislike Hilton himself. But he did not make it easy. Pointing to a dog’s basket, he informed the painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham it was where women belonged. Barns-Graham was fond of him nonetheless, and appreciated the originality and honesty of his art. In 1965, having divorced his first wife Ruth David, Hilton married Rose Phipps, a woman twenty years his junior. The couple settled in Cornwall and had two children, Bo and Fergus. Hilton enjoyed the company of fellow St. Ives artists, particularly Tony and Jane O’Malley. An alcoholic in the last decades of his life, he was fortunate to live in a part of England where his drinking was tolerated, and where he could also exercise his considerable charm, chatting happily with visitors. Rural life was not uneventful however, and after several episodes of drink driving, Hilton found himself locked up in Exeter goal—the experience reminding him of years he had spent as a prisoner in a German POW camp, having been captured during the raid on Dieppe. As he inched towards death, Hilton’s art became ever more direct and instinctive. His late drawings, including lively female nudes, are among his best work. He died at Botallack, near St. Just, in 1975.
With the publication of Virginia Button’s recent book on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, following on Lynne Green’s monograph W. Barns-Graham, A Studio Life, the achievements of this leading post-war abstract artist are now being fully recognised. Although a key member of the St. Ives group, Barns-Graham was unfairly marginalised in the 1985 survey exhibition ‘St. Ives 1939-64: Twenty-five years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery’, held at Tate St. Ives—although two subsequent solo exhibitions of her work at that museum have gone some way towards remedying the oversight. In some ways, as Button points out, in refusing to remain silent on the issue of gender discrimination, Barns-Graham found herself alienated from the largely male cadre of curators, artists and patrons of the period, who felt she was not ‘playing the game’. The frontispiece in Button’s book, a photograph portrait taken by Adrian Flowers in 1955, shows the artist in her studio. During his visit, Flowers also took photographs of her paintings, sculptures and geometric plaster reliefs.
The paintings, including White, Black and Terracotta (1954) are hard-edged abstract compositions, angular, often with interlocking forms. At that time, Barns-Graham was achieving widespread recognition; two years before, the first solo show of her work had been held in London, at the Redfern Gallery. Flowers photographed Barns-Graham and her then husband David Lewis, standing together, but at a slight distance. Having married in 1949, they were a golden couple in the art world, photogenic, stylishly-dressed and very much of the Modernist era, but Flowers’ images also capture a certain awkwardness between them.
Born into a well-off family in St. Andrews, Scotland, Barns-Graham studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, where in addition to conventional studio tuition, where the emphasis was on observational drawing, she attended lectures by Herbert Read, and was tutored by William Gilles, whose modernist abstract works were a great influence. In 1940, after spending some time travelling on the Continent, Barns-Graham settled in St. Ives where she met Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Borlase Smart, Naum Gabo and Bernard Leach, and began to explore abstraction. Although her early work was representational, and she showed with the Newlyn Society and at the Royal Scottish Academy, Barns-Graham quickly became seen as a leading progressive artist, not only for the quality of her work but also in terms of media coverage of the burgeoning art scene in Cornwall. Her marriage in 1948 to Lewis reinforced this celebrity, especially when he became secretary of the Penwith Society.
Tall, good-looking, gregarious and charming, Lewis was ten years younger than Barns-Graham. However, having come to Cornwall from South Africa, he was ambitious and by 1954 was beginning to see St. Ives as a cul-de-sac. The year after these photographs were taken, he and Barns-Graham split up, Lewis eventually settling in Canada, where he became a professor of architecture and urban planning. Their marriage was annulled in 1960. Although these events were a blow to Barns-Graham’s personal self-esteem, the set-back was temporary, and while retiring somewhat from the world, she continued to develop her art. Experimenting with different styles, she maintained an abiding interest in geology, which provided, so to speak, a bed-rock for her creative process. This was not surprising, as it was in Edinburgh that James Hutton in the eighteenth century had pioneered the modern interpretations of rock formation. The Cornish coastline and the beach at Porthmeor were a continuing inspiration to Barns-Graham, but from the 1960’s onwards, she travelled extensively, seeking both artistic inspiration and emotional solace in the harshest of landscapes, including the glaciers of Switzerland (which she had first visited in 1949) and the volcanic terrain of the Canary Islands. While her later paintings are more fluid, with colours mixing and merging, the earlier works tend to be hard-edged and geometric. Some echo the fractures and dislocations of faults in strata, while the use of red, reminiscent of liquid magma, is a recurring feature in her art. Barns-Graham’s use of vibrant colours gives her paintings an emotional kick, while her abstract compositions are hard-won, based on close observation of nature, careful thought and inspiration. In the 1990’s she created a series of energetic and colourful paintings, some with a series she titled ‘Scorpio’. Joyous and colourful, these works have echoes of jazz improvisation, and dance. From 1998, at the Graal Press near Edinburgh, she also explored the medium of screen-printing, working with the press’s founders Carol Robertson and Robert Adams. Although Barns-Graham died in 2004, both her work and her contribution to art are sustained by the Trust set up in her name.
[see Virginia Button Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (Sansom & Company, 2020)]
Although a stalwart of the St. Ives art world through the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Michael Seward Snow is today not so well-known as his fellow artists who settled in Cornwall, such as John Wells, Bryan Wynter or Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Yet, with his love of poetry and painting, Snow’s aesthetic embodies the vibrant connection that existed between literature and the visual arts in St. Ives. He was multi-talented; writer, painter, sculptor, tutor and occasional photographer. Snow’s photographs of his friend, the poet William Sydney Graham, are in the National Portrait Gallery. Along with his second wife Margaret Lambert, he edited Night Fisherman: Selected letters of W. S. Graham, a testament to the writer whose work celebrates both the Cornish landscape and the artists inspired by its rocky coastline. The son of a schoolteacher, Michael Snow was born in Manchester in 1930, and attended the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, where he developed an interest in art and poetry. He worked for some years as a librarian, painting in his spare time. In 1951, after visiting Liverpool and seeing an exhibition of contemporary art from St. Ives, he and his first wife Sylvia Jarrett, and their friend Alexander Mackenzie, decided to settle in Cornwall. A graduate of Liverpool College of Art, Mackenzie was one of the early influences on Snow’s development as an artist.
Largely self-taught, Snow was a generation younger than Terry Frost, Barns-Graham and Ben Nicholson, and was receptive to the new ideas expressed in their work. In his own art, he sought to emulate their approach to abstraction, and in paintings such as Sea Cliffs – West Penwith created a visual translation of the rhythmic motion of waves and the ragged line of Cornish clifftops. Other abstract works, such as Earth Slip and Triad 2, evoke the sea-rounded stones on the shores below those cliffs. He fitted in well with the St. Ives art scene, was elected a member of the Penwith Society in 1953 and became its secretary the following year. A talented artist and a fine colourist, he was more literal in his approach to abstraction than Ben Nicholson or Patrick Heron, and his paintings do not have the same hard-won abstract visual language that characterises the work of Peter Lanyon, but nevertheless he produced fine paintings, with an instinctive sense of form and colour.
In 1956, Snow and his wife divorced, with Sylvia then marrying their mutual friend, the poet Robin Skelton. In a neat and amicable reciprocation, Margaret Lambert, Skelton’s partner, then married Snow. The following year Snow and Skelton were in Manchester, where, along with John Anthony Connor, they founded the slightly anarchic Peterloo Group, and held a number of exhibitions, the first being in the large front room of Skelton’s flat. Skelton and his wife Silvia later settled in British Columbia, where he became a university professor, prolific author, and an authority on Irish poetry. Snow and Margaret Lambert returned to St. Ives, where they had a son, Justin. The Peterloo Group proved resilient, evolving from informal beginnings into the Manchester Institute for Contemporary Art.
Not long after their return to St. Ives, in December 1963, Adrian Flowers visited the town, photographing Snow and Margaret Lambert, walking on the beach below Porthmeor Studios, and along the nearby clifftops. He also recorded the dramatic rock formations of West Penwith and the sea-rounded stones that inspired many of Snow’s paintings.
Back in the studio above Porthmeor Beach, Flowers took a sequence of dramatic photographs, in which Snow laid a canvas flat on the studio floor, and then prepared it for painting. He evidently preferred to work standing above his paintings, using long-handled artist’s brushes. In one sequence, Snow is actively painting: an abstract composition evolves, circular motifs juxtaposed with parallel lines. Climbing up to a roofspace, Flowers photographed the artist from above. Other images record Snow accessing the beach below his studio, by simply climbing out the large window and shinning down a ladder. Adrian’s dog Sarah, a boxer labrador cross, accompanied him and appears in several photographs.
A later sequence of photographs taken by Flowers, 5 x 4 colour transparencies, depict abstract paintings by Snow, including the canvas Archangel, a work dating from April 1962. There are also photographs (undated), labelled “Mike Snow” showing a large welded metal sculpture, perhaps four metres high. Based on the structure of a leaf, this white-painted sculpture was probably a commission, destined for a public site. [AF 4258]
In 1964 Snow showed at the Rowan Gallery in London and the following year, took a job teaching at the Exeter College of Art and Design, a post he held for two decades. Having access to the college’s sculpture department, and inspired by an interest in cosmology and physics, he decided to make a series of welded metal sculptures. These works, some with metal discs, are not unlike the contemporary sun and moon sculptures of Morris Graves. In 1967, Flowers took large-scale colour transparencies of one of these metal sculptures by Snow. Two similar pieces are in the Box gallery collection in Plymouth, where Snow’s friend Alexander Mackenzie was Head of Fine Art from 1964 to 1984. In later years, the Snows lived on the edge of Dartmoor. Margaret died in 2009; Michael, aged 82, in 2012.
[see Robin Skelton “Retrospect- 4: A Brief Account of the Peterloo Group” in Ambit No. 10 (1961) pp 5-8]
On 7th January 1956, on the first floor of a house in Blackheath in south London, Adrian Flowers set up his studio lights and large-format Sinar camera, to photograph works by the artist Victor Pasmore. Facing the heath, the three-storey Georgian house was large enough to accommodate both the artist’s studio and family living space. Victor and Wendy Pasmore (née Blood) had moved into this bomb-damaged but elegant house in 1947; their son John was born there in 1953. On this day, and during at least one subsequent visit, using 35mm and 120 film, as well as large-scale colour transparencies, Flowers photographed Pasmore, his studio and artworks.
One transparency shows Pasmore, dark-haired, bearded and wearing a grey suit, seated in an armchair, with three plates on a bookcase behind him. Decorated with bold abstract patterns by the artist, the plates evoke a Japanese aesthetic, as does the accompanying branch of cherry blossom, in a glass vase. [The flowering blossom suggests this photograph was taken in March.] Although a picture rail is visible in some of these photographs, Pasmore subsequently removed this architectural feature, to create more of a white cube. The sitting room was furnished with a white couch, vases on the chimneypiece and louvered shutters outside the windows.
Three weeks after Flowers’ first visit, Pasmore wrote to him from Newcastle, requesting a photograph for a forthcoming article in Art and Architecture magazine. [Victor Pasmore, 46 Eldon Place, Newcastle on Tyne, to Adrian Flowers, 25 Jan 1956 (AF archive)]. By 1956, Pasmore had been head of fine art at Newcastle on Tyne for two years, but commuted regularly back to his Blackheath home and studio. In another Flowers photograph, he looks through a transparent section in one of his abstract reliefs. Suspended from a piano wire, this work cantilevered out from the wall. Behind it is the relief Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac, a work now in the Tate (where it is dated 1957, but may date from the previous year). As the photography progressed, Pasmore hung a selection of Perspex and wood reliefs in different combinations on the sitting room wall.
The room was on its way to becoming a gesamkunstwerk, with abstract constructions, painted chimneypiece, striped cushions, and hanging mobile sculptures. The furniture is mid-twentieth century Modernist, including what appears to be an early Poang chair, and a wingback armchair. The modernist couch is a Hille design, from Heals. Like Pasmore, Hille’s principal designer, Robin Day, had worked on the 1951 Festival of Britain; his seating in the Royal Festival Hall was a triumph of modernist design.
Flowers’ photograph of the studio work table at Blackheath reveals that Pasmore used household enamels to paint his perspex and wood abstract relief constructions, his preferred brand being Enamel-it. According to the label on the tin, this lacquer paint was made ‘from bakelite’. There was also Fergusson’s gloss enamel, some pigments and oil colours, and a tin of Naylor’s cellulose, used as a thinner. The brushes were a mixture of those used by fine artists and house decorators. A sculpture made of wooden spools and discs threaded onto a cord, hung over the studio work table.
In another image, Pasmore is sitting on a metal chair, in front of a fireplace, above which hangs an abstract relief. Other geometric artworks hang on the wall alongside the fireplace. In making these works Pasmore had been influenced by American artist Charles Biederman’s book Letters on the New Art (1951) which advocated the use of industrial materials. The photographs show Pasmore during a period when he was at the peak of his career, a confident artist, thoughtful and reflective.
Other photographs taken by Flowers at a later date, black and white this time, show Pasmore supervising the construction of a temporary exhibition pavilion at the Whitechapel Art Gallery for the exhibition This is Tomorrow in 1956, a collaboration with Helen Phillips and Ernö Goldfinger, in which temporary walls were constructed within the gallery space using a framework of metal tubing and wood, to create an ‘environment’.
Through a lifetime of teaching, designing structures and making art, Victor Pasmore was responsible for leading a wider popular acceptance of Modernist art and architecture in mid-twentieth century Britain. Born in Surrey, he grew up in a middle class household, his mother being a painter, while his father, the medical superintendent at Croydon Mental Hospital, was a keen art collector. Pasmore attended Harrow School, where he was taught by Maurice Clarke and, three years in succession, won the Yates Thompson Prize for art. However the death of his father in 1927 resulted in Pasmore having to secure a job with London County Council. Employed as a clerk in the Public Health Department for ten years, he maintained his art education, taking evening classes at the Central School of Art. Pasmore’s work during this period was sensitive, naturalistic, and inspired by a feeling for nature and respect for artists such as Cézanne and JMW Turner. In 1934 his first exhibition took place, at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. Three years later, along with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, he founded an independent School of Drawing and Painting at Fitzroy Street. With support and encouragement from the art historian Kenneth Clark and philanthropist Samuel Courtauld, this enterprise later became the Euston Road School. Aided by Clark, Pasmore retired from his job with LCC and became a full-time artist. During the Second World War, Pasmore was a conscientious objector, and with some difficulty succeeded, again with help from Clark and Coldstream, in obtaining exemption from military service. In 1943 he took up a teaching post at Camberwell School of Art, where he taught for six years, and was tutor to Terry Frost. During this time, while living at Chiswick, and later at Hammersmith Terrace, and inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings, he produced lyrical views of the river Thames.
In 1948, shortly after moving to the house at Blackheath, Pasmore shifted from painting in a lyrical representational style to one of pure abstraction. He described these works in terms suited to music—as motifs or variations—and was not afraid of what he called ‘arbitrary invention’, although his approach to creativity was in fact highly-skilled and far from arbitrary. A visit to St. Ives in 1950 and meeting with Ben Nicholson were critical to his change in approach, and the following year Pasmore was elected to the Penwith Society of Arts. As with many of his generation, he was idealistic, seeing in art a way towards a better future for society, and actively sought to share his aesthetic feelings with a wider public. In 1950 he was commissioned to create a mural for a bus station in Kingston Upon Thames, and the following year was one of the artists selected by the Arts Council to create works for the Festival of Britain. He also took up a post at the Central School of Art, where he taught for four years. In 1954 Pasmore became head of painting at the Department of Fine Art in Durham University in Newcastle, a position he held for seven years. Teaching at Newcastle provided him with the opportunity of introducing a fine art course modelled on Bauhaus teaching. This course led to a BA degree, one of the earliest in Britain or Ireland. In spite of differing approaches to art, Pasmore and Richard Hamilton worked well together. Pasmore introduced Hamilton into the school as a tutor, and in time the new arrival took over as head of department. Together, these two artists epitomise the best and most progressive art of post-war Britain, creating an energy that in every way matched that of the leading art schools of London. Commissioned to create murals for the Newcastle Civic Centre and Pilkington’s glass works, Pasmore also worked on the Peterlee development, designing a monumental Modernist concrete structure for the new town centre. In 1959, he was selected for Documenta II and two years later represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. He was also appointed a Trustee of the Tate Gallery. In 1966 Pasmore bought a house in Malta, and over the following years, until his death, spent much of his time there. His son John kept on the house at Blackheath, with the studio and other rooms virtually unchanged since the January day in 1956 when Adrian Flowers recorded his first images of Pasmore on film.
In early August 1954, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited Peter Lanyon in ‘The Attic Studio’ in St. Ives, to photograph both the artist and his work. The results are preserved in two rolls of 120 black and white negative film held in the Adrian Flowers Archive. In one photograph, wearing his trademark black beret, and dressed in short-sleeved shirt and sleeveless pullover, Lanyon demonstrates the mixing of artists’ colours, using a muller (mortar) and glass sheet. Another image shows the artist leaning against a cupboard, with Angela seated on a couch beside him. In the background is a book press and a rotary grindstone. Hanging on the wall is the 1948 painting Headland (Tate collection). A third photograph shows the artist standing before his studio easel, pointing out details in a large painting in progress, Blue Boat and Rainstorm. In another image, Lanyon, smiling, leans against his workbench. On the windowsill stands a construction, while hanging on the wall is an antelope horn—a trophy probably brought back from South Africa, where Lanyon, aged twenty, had visited relatives. Also photographed were the slender columnar 1948 Construction, the 1951 Porthleven Boats, both now in the Tate collection, and Construction for Bojewyan Farms, a painted sculpture of curving forms dating from 1952 and now in a private collection. Another work photographed by Flowers that day include Lanyon’s plaster sculpture of a bull, from his Europa series. This was a work in progress, with copper pipes projecting from the animal’s head, forming an armature for plaster horns. The concept for the classically-inspired Europa series had taken shape in Anticoli Corrado, the hilltop town east of Rome, where Lanyon and his wife Sheila had stayed for four months the previous year.
Lanyon was pleased with the photographs, and wrote to Flowers not long afterwards, requesting permission to use a black and white image of one of the works photographed during that session, for a book being produced by Patrick Heron. Lanyon offered to call to Flowers’ studio when he was in London on Monday 20th September, to collect the photograph. To assist Flowers in identifying the work [Construction for St. Just (1952, Tate collection)], Lanyon included a sketch in his letter [PL to AF at 44A Dover Street, letter in AF Archive c Sept 1954]. A painted sculpture made from discarded window panes, and inspired by pencil and charcoal sketches of the town that was once the centre of the Cornish tin mining industry, Construction for St. Just reveals how Lanyon was not only inspired by the art of Naum Gabo, but also used his own three-dimensional works to guide the completion of paintings, described them as akin to the scaffolding used to support a building in progress. In 1953, the painting that resulted from this process, St. Just, was shown at the Hanover Gallery in London in Space in Colour, an exhibition selected by Patrick Heron. It is now also in the Tate collection.
Just ten years later, the early death of Lanyon robbed British art of one of its stars. His career had been short but brilliant, his work carrying forward a Romantic vision, in which the energy and zest of Cornwall’s coastal landscape was infused with European formalism and Mediterranean colour, resulting in paintings that are in every way equal to the best abstract expressionist work produced in America, but also infused with a sense of history and human endeavour.
Born into a well-off mining family, and educated at Clifton College in Bristol, Lanyon had taken great pride in his Cornish ancestry. Photography and music were part of his early education, and while still a teenager he took painting lessons with Borlase Smart in St Ives. In 1937 Adrian Stokes advised Lanyon to enroll at the Euston Road School, where Victor Pasmore and Naum Gabo were tutors, and he studied also at the Penzance School of Art. Back in St. Ives, it was inevitable that Lanyon would meet Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who had moved to Cornwall in the 1930’s, as did Gabo. During WWII, Lanyon served as a flight mechanic with the RAF in North Africa and Palestine. He was also stationed in Southern Italy for two years, during which time he painted murals and gave lectures on art. He ran an art education workshop for servicemen, developing his own austere, psycho-analytical, but optimistic approach to art. In 1946 he married Sheila St John Browne and over the next decade they had six children; their son Andrew also becoming an artist. Lanyon was inspired by Ben Nicholson’s approach to abstraction, and during the 1940’s made constructions that show the influence of both Nicholson and Gabo. He was a founding member of the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949, and had his first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London that same year. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, the newly-created Arts Council commissioned sixty artists to create large-scale paintings. One of these, Porthleven (British Council collection), an abstract work by Lanyon, is ambitious and hectic, crammed full of allusions to birds, gliders, harbours and quays, the composition surmounted by the clock tower of the Bickton-Smith Institute overlooking the harbour of Porthleven. Lanyon, Heron and Bryan Wynter were also included in the exhibition “Abstract Art”, curated by Adrian Heath at the AIA Gallery, and in another important show, British Abstract Art, held at Gimpel Fils, that same year. In the early 1950’s Lanyon taught at Corsham College of Art, where William Scott was also a tutor, and later that decade he, William Redgrave and Terry Frost ran a school, at St. Peter’s Loft in St. Ives, with Nancy Wynne-Jones among the artists attending. Lanyon’s first New York exhibition was at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957, when he met Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other artists. Over the following years he showed regularly at the Viviano Gallery. There was a demand for Lanyon’s work in the US, and in 1962 he painted a mural in the house of Stanley Seeger, in New Jersey. Initially tightly constructed, Lanyon’s work during the 1960’s became freer and more painterly. He took up gliding so as to appreciate the physical beauty of the Cornish landscape from the air, but died in a gliding accident in 1964, aged just forty-six.
Beginning in July 1954, Adrian and Angela Flowers, and their year-old son Adam, made the first of what was to become a series of regular visits to St. Ives. Setting out to photograph the artists and writers who had made the town famous, during this first visit Adrian also photographed other aspects of Cornish life, including carpenters at work and a traditional mummer.
Denis Mitchell (1912 – 1993) A sequence of photographs document the studio of Denis Mitchell. An abstract sculptor, working mainly in wood and bronze, Mitchell was an early member of the St. Ives group, having moved to Cornwall from Wales in 1930. Located in the former workshop of plumbers W. F. Smithson, his studio was a timber and corrugated iron building, in a cobbled courtyard off one of the town’s narrow streets. The entrance was decorated with abstract paint marks, perhaps made by Mitchell himself. Upstairs, the interior contained a cast iron stove, workbenches and timber sculptures. The whitewashed walls were decorated with paintings, antelope antlers and an African mask. At the side of the studio was an improvised rack for holding lengths of timber.
Present that September day were Mitchell, Stanley Dorfman and Terry Frost. Angela and young Adam were there also. Mitchell, then in his early ‘40s, was photographed sitting in an Victorian armchair, hand under chin, looking grave and thoughtful. Since moving to Cornwall twenty-four years earlier, he and his brother Endell had contrived to make a living in St. Ives, renovating houses and growing vegetables and flowers. St. Ives was famous for its early spring flowers, violets and the yellow narcissus Soleil D’or. In 1938 Endell became landlord of the Castle Inn on Fore Street, the pub that was later to be the birthplace of the Penwith Society. Around this time Denis, working in a craft market, met Jane Stevens; they married in 1939 and were to have three daughters. During WWII, Mitchell worked in the local tin mines, learning to hew stone deep in the narrow mine shafts. He also served in the Home Guard, where he met the potter Bernard Leach and art critic Adrian Stokes. Encouraged by Leach, in 1946 Mitchell joined the St. Ives Society of Artists, and three years later was taken on as an assistant by Barbara Hepworth at Trewyn Studio. When Adrian photographed him, he had been working with Hepworth for five years, learning the art and craft of abstract sculpture. In 1955 he became chairman of the Penwith Society, and later joined John Wells at his Trewarveneth Studio in Newlyn. Mitchell is credited with inspiring many younger artists, including Broen O’Casey and Conor Fallon. Another photograph by Adrian shows Dorfman and Mitchell standing together in the studio, with Frost descending the staircase. This introduction to the artists of St. Ives ultimately led Angela, some years later, to open her first gallery in London. For two decades Mitchell was one of her leading artists. A major exhibition of his work opened at the Angela Flowers Gallery in March 1993, just before his death.
Stanley Dorfman A television and film producer, renowned for introducing Top of the Pops to BBC audiences in the 1960’s, Stanley Dorfman was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Aged nineteen he began to study architecture, but switched instead to fine art and in 1946 was awarded a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After spending six years in France, Dorfman and his wife and children went back to South Africa to see his parents, but they found the political system there repellent. In 1954, he moved to England, settling in the artists’ colony of St. Ives, where he worked as a studio assistant to Barbara Hepworth, while continuing to develop his own art. His wife and children remained in South Africa until Dorfman could afford to bring them to Europe. His paintings from this early period are hard-edged abstract works, with strong flat colours and titles such as Vertical St. Ives (Paul), Blue and Brown Study, and Composition with Four Rectangles. His 1954 painting Across the Bay features abstracted hard-edge waves.
He also created three-dimensional panels which, while paying homage to Mondrian and De Stijl, hark back to mosaic designs and wall pieces he had made in South Africa. In South Africa also, Dorfman had organised music concerts, featuring jazz musicians. This interest in music remained with him, and in 1964 he left St. Ives to work as an art director with BBC television, then as producer and director of the popular weekly music programme Top of the Pops. Meeting Dick Clark who had travelled from the United States to England in search of new talent, Dorfman began to alternate between New York and London. He a created a series for the BBC called ‘In Concert’, beginning with Randy Newman, and followed by Joni Mitchell. In 1968 he had Leonard Cohen on the show. During his long career in British film and television, Dorfman directed over two hundred shows, with musicians such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elton John and David Bowie. In 1974 he decided to relocate to Los Angeles, where he directed and produced music videos for many artists, from Robert Plant to Emmy Lou Harris. He took over Dick Clark’s In Concert series and also worked with Yoko Ono on videos, made using footage taken by John Lennon. He collaborated with David Bowie on two videos, Be My Wife and Heroes, both from 1977, and both in the collection of MoMA. After a career as music producer and director, Dorfman returned to painting. His later works, more lyrical and painterly, often reference music, as in La Bamba and Imagine. His partner of some forty years is the actor Barbara Flood. Dorfman currently lives in Los Angeles, and exhibits his paintings there at The Lodge gallery.
Terry Frost (1915 – 2003) A second visit by the Flowers family to St. Ives followed in December 1954, and a subsequent visit in May 1956, when Adrian photographed Terry and Kathleen Frost, with their young sons Adrian and Anthony. The group assembled on Smeaton’s Pier, with the harbour and Wharf in the background. Terry’s warm and convivial personality shines through in these images. He and Kath took raising a large family in their stride. He would often get up at 6am, to take the toddlers for a walk on the quay. In one shot, he holds up Anthony, while pointing to the sky.
Born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire in 1915, Frost had led a varied life before coming to St. Ives. The son of an artilleryman, he left school aged fourteen to work first at a cycle repair shop, then at Armstrong-Whitworth, the company renowned for its battleships and locomotives (and also for the universal ‘Whitworth’ thread that standardised nuts and bolts). By the time Frost went to work for the company at Coventry, it was called Vickers-Armstrong, and was making Whitley bombers, on the wings and fuselages of which he painted RAF roundels. Having enlisted in the Territorials, during WWII Frost served in France, Palestine and Greece. Fighting with the commandos in Crete in June 1941, he was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. At Stalag 383 in Bavaria, he found he had a talent for sketching portraits of fellow prisoners, using canvases made from hessian pillowcases, primed with glue size made from barley soup. The brushes were made from horsehair. He painted around two hundred portraits, and also met the artist Adrian Heath who encouraged him to take up painting as a profession. Having studied with Stanhope Forbes in Newlyn, Heath was familiar with Cornwall and its tradition of welcoming artists. Frost credited the semi-starvation he experienced during the war as helping him achieve a higher level of spiritual awareness; this no doubt contributed to the qualities of alertness and intellectual presence that characterise his art in the post-war period. After the war, on returning to England, Frost enrolled firstly at the Birmingham College of Art, then at Camberwell School of Art. In 1945, he married Kathleen Clarke, who had worked in aircraft factory during the war. The following year, forgoing a job as a lightbulb salesman, and availing of his soldiers’ back pay that had built up during years of imprisonment, he moved to St. Ives with Kath and their first-born son. They lived in Headland Row, overlooking Porthmeor beach, while he attended the St. Ives School of Art, and also worked in a café to make ends meet. The St. Ives School was run by Leonard Fuller and Marjorie Mostyn, both dedicated artists: Fuller painted a portrait of Terry Frost with his young son on his knee. In 1947 Frost’s first exhibition Paintings with Knife and Brush was held at Downing’s bookshop. Returning to Camberwell in 1948, he studied under Victor Pasmore, Ben Nicholson and William Coldstream. Pasmore was at this time moving towards abstraction, and Frost followed his lead. Although Madrigal, his first abstract painting, dates from 1949, when the Frosts were back living at 12 Quay Street, on the St. Ives seafront, it is the Cubist-inspired Walk along the Quay, painted the following year, that is regarded as his breakthrough, its bold composition dominated by semi-circles, interrupted by vertical linear areas of blue and khaki green. Walk Along the Quay is the first in a series of paintings, done on hardboard, that show an increasing confidence with abstraction. Another work from this period, Brown and Yellow (c1951-2), is in the Tate collection (although the Tate was initially slow to acquire a work by Frost). Many of his paintings from these years suggest draped fabrics, or the Cornish landscape with long fields terminating in angular cliff edges, as in Blue Winter (1956). Frost showed for three years with the St Ives Society of Artists, and was elected a member of the more progressive Penwith Society. For many years he made prints with Hugh Stoneman. During the 1950’s he exhibited regularly with the Leicester Galleries in London and also taught at Bath Academy, the University of Leeds, and in Cyprus. Although Frost joined the London Group in 1958, over the following decade a new generation of mostly London-based artist came to the fore. As sales of his work flagged, he ceased to show with the Waddington Gallery, and increasingly turned to teaching to help support the family, while continuing to pursue his own art. After Leeds, the Frosts moved to Banbury, Oxfordshire, where they lived between 1963 and 1974, with Terry lecturing at the University of Reading. In the early 1960’s he undertook a residency at San Jose in California, experimenting with new acrylic paints, and also teaching at the University of California. He showed in New York, beginning with the Barbara Schaeffer gallery in 1960, where he met Mark Rothko and other leading artists. In 1992, Frost was elected a Royal Academician and six years later was knighted. He and Kath had six children in all: five sons, Adrian, Anthony, Matthew, Stephen and Simon, and one daughter, Kate. Stephen is an actor, while Adrian and Anthony followed in their father’s footsteps as artists; Anthony still lives and working in St. Ives. When Alan Bowness was appointed director of Tate, he initiated the idea of a contemporary art museum in Cornwall, to celebrate the work of Frost, Heron, Hepworth and the many other artists who had forged a new approach to art in Britain in the 1950’s. When Tate St. Ives opened in 1993, a large banner by Frost, painted on Newlyn sailcloth, was displayed in the entrance. Terry Frost died in Cornwall in 2003. Twelve years later, on the centenary of his birth, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at Tate St. Ives.
In the 1956 Smeaton Pier photograph are Terry and Kath Frost, flanked by their sons Adrian and Anthony. To their left is the poet and budding architect David Lewis, who had come to Britain from South Africa (the girl beside Lewis has not been identified). After moving to St. Ives, Lewis became secretary of the Penwith Society and promoter of the town’s artists. Like Frost, Mitchell, Hilton, Dorfman and others, he worked for a time as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth. In 1949, Lewis married Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham. However, seven years later he departed Cornwall, to study architecture in Leeds and to work with Peter Stead on modernist housing. This led to a new career in the United States, where he taught at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and was a co-founder of Urban Design Associates (UDA). In 1985 Lewis was the catalyst for the retrospective exhibition St. Ives: 1939-64, at the Tate Gallery. Other photographs on that same contact sheet include shots of terraced granite houses on Back Road, and a Land Rover parked on Teetotal Street, where David Lewis lived at No. 4. A narrow thoroughfare, Teetotal Street has changed little over the years, although now it is littered with green wheelie bins. In another photograph, Kath and the girl stand beside a clinker-built boat drawn up on the solid granite setts of the pier; today the boats are gone, their place taken by brightly-coloured plastic surf boards. However surfing has been popular in Cornwall for many years, and in the summer of 1955, the beaches were thronged with holiday-makers, many of them carrying small plywood surfboards.
Born on 30th January 1920 in Leeds, Patrick Heron was a multi-talented creative genius, equally at home painting, writing, lecturing, or engaging in polemical discussions. He first came to live in Cornwall as a young child, when his father Tom Heron (1890-1983), a Fabian Non-Conformist and member of the Leeds Art Club, spent several years in St. Ives, as manager and partner at the Cryséde Silk company. Founded by Alec George Walker in 1920, Cryséde produced block-printed textiles—many of them abstract patterns— for dress designers, using silk sourced from the Walker family firm in Yorkshire. After four years there was a falling-out with Walker and in 1929 Tom Heron moved to Welwyn Garden City, where he set up a new company, Cresta Silks, building a factory on Broad Water Road, and opening retail outlets, on Bond Street, Baker Street and Brompton Road. The distinctive modernist fronts and interiors of the Cresta shops were designed by the Canadian Wells Coates, while Edward McKnight Kauffer also designed for the company. While working as a designer for his father, Patrick Heron’s love of Cornwall, where he had spent idyllic days of his childhood, saw him returning frequently to St. Ives. In the late 1930’s, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, but attended only two days a week, while continuing to design fabrics for Cresta Silks. Melon, his first design for a Cresta scarf dates from 1934, when he was fourteen years old, while his Amaryllis, dates from two years later. Paul Nash also produced designs for Cresta fabrics, including Cherry Orchard (1931), as did Graham Sutherland and Cedric Morris.
With the onset of WWII, and also being requisitioned for parachutes, Cresta turned to making utility clothing. Heron registered as a conscientious objector (as had his father in the First World War) and, although suffering from asthma, went to work as an agricultural labourer in Cambridgeshire. Ill health 1944-45 resulted in his being invalided. He returned to St. Ives, where he worked for a year at the Bernard Leach Pottery, admiring the works of Shoji Hamada, and meeting Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. After the war, he went back to work for Cresta Silks as head designer. Heron pursued his own career as a painter, and in 1947 had his first solo show. Nine years later, an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist painting held in London marked a turning point in his career, inspiring him to move from working within a French Cubist and School of Paris style to one that showed the influence of the abstract painters of the United States. However Heron never lost that innate and instinctive love of colour and tactile surfaces, that derived both from his intimate knowledge of textile design and his enduring admiration for Bonnard and Matisse. While he pursued his career as an artist in Cornwall, the Cresta company continued to flourish and by 1973 there were 70 shops and over 1000 employees. After Tom Heron’s retirement, the company was taken over by Debenhams.
As an writer, Heron contributed essays and articles to the New Statesman, Art New York and other journals, using the opportunity to champion the work of his fellow St. Ives artists, including Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton. In his 1955 book The Changing Forms of Art, the argument for abstraction was set out with characteristic passion. The following year, Heron and his wife Delia bought Eagle’s Nest, a large house overlooking Zennor, five miles west of St. Ives. For many years, the area around Zennor had attracted artists and writers, including DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and poet John Heath-Stubbs. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers at St. Ives, memories of which fill her novel To the Lighthouse. The artist Bryan Wynter lived nearby in Carn Cottage. The Herons settled in to Eagle’s Nest, welcoming fellow artists such as Roger Hilton and William Scott, and raising two daughters; Susanna, who went on to became a sculptor, and Katharine, now professor of architecture at Westminster University. Although Eagle’s Nest is a large house, Heron needed a separate workspace and so in 1958 moved his paints and canvases to the artists’ studios at Porthmeor. Other artists in the complex included Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Terry Frost. The space Heron was allocated was No. 5, Ben Nicholson’s former studio, next door to Tony O’Malley. Although he remained an abstract painter for the rest of his life, Heron’s work retains memories of the Cornish landscape, small fields surrounded by stone walls, lopsided houses, and villages crowded around little coves. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, he continued to paint and write, achieving a legendary status both for artistic vision and idealism. A lifelong socialist and pacifist, he was involved in many activist campaigns to preserve the Cornish landscape. Heron received many accolades during his lifetime, but he declined both a knighthood, and the opportunity to become a member of the Royal Academy. He died at Eagles Nest in 1999.
In the Ember days, following Whitsun, May 17th 1959, the Flowers family; Adrian, Angela, and their two young children Adam and Matthew, travelled to St Ives for a short break. They stayed in a rented house at 6 Draycott Terrace. At the time Angela was pregnant with Daniel, who was born in August of that year. As always, work was combined with holiday. Adrian visited Patrick Heron at his Porthmeor studio, where several of the leading St Ives artists were based. Slim, in his late 20’s, and dressed in pullover and work trousers, Heron stands beside an unfinished large canvas as he is photographed. In one image he reaches out to touch the surface of the painting. This work is Yellow Painting (1958/59), now in the Tate Collection. The photograph shows the canvas some weeks before completion and reveals how Heron was using yellow, applied over mauve underpainting, to enhance the chromatic intensity of the work (an excellent description of Yellow Painting is given by Laura McLean-Ferris on the Tate website). During this period was moving towards the pure, soft-edged abstraction that would characterise his work in the early 1960s, while not letting go of the earthy, painterly quality of his canvases from the late 1950s with their embedded memories of landscape, stonewalls and hedges. In another photograph, Heron sits in a west country chair, looking at the camera, holding a large paintbrush. Although the photographs were taken using Kodak 120 colour negative film, the contact sheets were printed in black and white, with some colour prints. Today, No 5 studio has changed little, and still retains the wood-battened white walls, large skylight and bare floorboards that appear in the series of photographs taken by Flowers in 1959.