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Artists in St Ives – part 1

Denis Mitchell in his studio September 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Denis Mitchell in his studio, September 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers


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.

Terry Frost, Stanley Dorfman and Denis Mitchell at Mitchell’s studio, September 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Stanley Dorfman, September 1954. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

David Lewis with Terry Frost and family, Smeaton’s Pier, St Ives, May 1956.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Terry Frost with son Anthony and ?… in St Ives, May 1956. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Terry Frost and Patrick Heron, in Heron’s studio on a later visit to St Ives, May 1959.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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Portraits

Order and chance: The Art of Kenneth Martin (1905-1984) 

Kenneth Martin in his studio, c.1957 (JN 2803)
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Between 1957 and 1975, Adrian Flowers made several visits to the studio of Mary and Kenneth Martin. Mary Martin, who died in 1969, pursued a distinguished career as a sculptor. Photographs of her by Flowers are featured in a previous post This is Tomorrow.

The present text deals mainly with Kenneth’s life and work. Taken with a Rolleiflex, using fine-grain black-and-white film, the early photographs taken by Flowers of Martin show him white-haired, looking more like a scientist than an artist, fabricating the abstract metal sculptures for which he had become well-known. Over the ensuing years, Flowers documented the development of Martin’s art. The last photographs, of a suspended brass spiral mobile, were taken in March 1975 with an 8 x10” Sinar camera, in preparation for a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, held that same year.

Kenneth Martin in his studio in 1957, photograph by Adrian Flowers

Kenneth Martin was part of a generation of artists whose careers were interrupted—and also partly defined—by WWII. After studying at the Sheffield School of Art, and working for six years as a designer in that city, in 1929 he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. There he met Mary Balmford, a fellow student who had moved to the RCA from Goldsmith’s College. They were married the following year. Beginning in 1934, Martin exhibited with the Allied Artists’ Association, and two years later showed with the London Group, becoming a full member of the Group in 1949. He also worked as a designer in his early years in London. His first solo show was held at the Leicester Galleries in 1943. He taught at St. John’s Wood School of Art and was also a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths. 

Kenneth Martin mobiles. Both images 1960.
Photographs by Adrian Flowers

Initially, Martin painted in the ‘Euston Road School’ style, but as the 1930’s advanced, he became more aware of progressive European and American art. In the late 1940’s, inspired by Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill, he began to experiment with abstract forms, in a style reminiscent of Russian Constructivists such as Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Tatlin. However, in post-war Britain the audience for avant-garde art—particularly an art that traced its roots back to revolutionary Russia—was limited. Claims that this art in Britain had sprung fully-formed from an interest in pure composition are unconvincing, although it is true that geometry and mathematics formed the essential language of Martin’s aesthetic. He described his constructions as resembling drawing in space with metal—an upbringing in the engineering town of Sheffield perhaps having a bearing on this conceptual approach. Made from lengths of metal welded together, often arranged around a vertical central spine, Martin’s sculptures were based on the idea of retaining and embodying the memory of a spiralling dynamic movement in space, akin to a propeller in water. The idea of rotation in abstract art, found also in the Synthetic Cubism of Albert Gleizes, was further enhanced in his spiral mobiles, where the sculpture was suspended, and allowed to rotate freely. 

Kenneth Martin working on Screw Mobile 1959 in his studio c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers
Screw mobiles Kenneth Martin c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although each pursued their own career, Kenneth and Mary Martin often worked closely together. In his introduction to the catalogue Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin, published to coincide with an Arts Council touring exhibition in 1970, Paul Overy described their approach: “In 1960 Mary Martin and Kenneth Martin made a Structure in Collaboration for a joint exhibition at the ICA, in Dover Street. It is a large work in four rectangular sections bolted together to form a large square, its scale and proportions directly related to the particular wall it was designed for, using the Fibonacci series in mathematics yet it does not give the impression of being coldly calculated. The whole structure is painted white and it seems perfect to combine the quiet, meditative introspection of Mary Martin’s earlier reliefs and the spiralling controlled energy of Kenneth Martin’s first series of mobiles.” The Martins worked on two such projects, the other being Environment, designed in collaboration with the architect John Weeks, for the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition, held in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery. For this seminal show, the Martins made tall free-standing screens, again reminiscent of Russian Constructivist art, that embodied their theories on a modular, mathematically-based art, where accident and order were held in creative tension. Kenneth Martin’s creative method included using a limited range of materials, such as graph paper, square canvases and a restricted range of colours—and then he would, as it were, throw a dice, and introduce random factors into the composition. While he cited artists such as John Cage and Sol le Witt as having been influential in this regard, Martin’s art echoes the world of I Ching and the interaction of order and chance in the everyday world. Writing in 1987, Hilary Lane remarked “Kenneth Martin was interested in the opposition of experience and information and the puzzle of separating the two. He had a great capacity for experiencing the world; others have written of how the shortest journey in his company was made into a voyage of discovery. The physical sensations of moving through, over, under and across, of walking past, up and down were felt anew and tiny signs of nature, particularly as it triumphed in an urban habitat delighted him.” [Hilary Lane, University of Sussex, Introduction, Annely Juda Fine Art catalogue, 1987, p. 5] In a lecture given in 1956, Martin sought to outline the thinking behind his art:

The wise men of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels carried on their backs objects to take the place of the spoken word. The construction, were it to act as a substitute for oil painting or drawing, would be as cumbersome and unnecessary. But the construction obeys its own laws and the dictates of its own material and expresses in a tangible manner what can only be expressed by that means. It is architectonic but not architecture and, in the case of the mobile, mechanistic, but in an aesthetic machine not a useful one. [‘Invention, a lecture 1956’, first published in Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London 1975]

Working with assistant Susan Tebby, herself a noted Constructivist/Constructionist artist, Martin received several commissions for public sculptures, including, in 1960, a stainless steel kinetic work for a fountain at Lambeth College in Brixton, and Twin Screws for the Union of Architects building in London the following year. His 1967 Construction in Aluminium is sited at the entrance to the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department, amidst Georgian terraces at Trumpington Street, Cambridge, while his construction for the Nuffield Institute at London Zoo dates from that same year. Four years later Martin was one of the artists shortlisted for a public art initiative sponsored by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and the Arts Council. Having been selected, in 1972 his Construction was installed at Arundel Gate in Sheffield, on a site now occupied by Sheffield Hallam University’s Owen Building. Based on the same mathematical system of rotations (“pendulum permutations”) employed by the artist in his smaller works, this six metre tall work consists of alternating plates and boxes, welded together to form a vertical column. The sculpture was fabricated locally, by Thomas Ward Ltd in Sheffield. Although it was hoped Construction would be purchased by the city’s Polytechnic, this did not transpire, and the work was shortly afterwards transferred to London, having been acquired by the Commonwealth Institute for its new building in Holland Park. It was later sited in parkland at Sutton Manor in Hampshire, and then at Millbank Street in Southampton, before being transferred to the New Art Centre in Wiltshire. In 2007 Construction was sold to a collector in California, but more recently it has returned to England. [Dr. Susan Tebby Kenneth Martin: Construction 1972 (New Art Centre 2022)

Construction 1972 by Kenneth Martin, at New Art Centre 2022
photograph: Peter Murray

The removal of Construction meant that there was no public sculpture by Martin in his home city of Sheffield, an omission that has not been rectified over the ensuing half century. Nor is there a sculpture by him in Sheffield Museum—although he is represented by a late abstract, Chance, Order, Change 24 History Painting A. (A portrait of Martin by Jeanne Masoero, a friend of Adrian Flowers, is also in Sheffield Museum). In 1987 a joint exhibition of Kenneth and Mary Martin’s work was held at Annely Juda Fine Art in Tottenham Mews London, followed by exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and other institutions. Kenneth Martin is represented by several works in the Tate collection, in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and in other museums. In 2007-8, an exhibition of work by the Martins was held at Tate St Ives, and in 2022, on the fiftieth anniversary of its first siting, his Construction was sited again at the New Art Centre, at Roche Court in Wiltshire, with Susan Tebby contributing an essay to the catalogue published to mark the sculpture’s return.

Screw Mobile c.1960
Photograph taken by Adrian Flowers in 1975 for Tate Gallery exhibition in the same year

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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This is Tomorrow

Mary Martin with model of installation Environment for the Whitechapel exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ taken from contact sheet of photgraphs by Adrian Flowers

In 1955 Adrian Flowers photographed artists Mary and Kenneth Martin in their studio in London. At the time, Mary was working on her maquette for Environment, an installation she, in collaboration with architect John Weeks, created for the This is Tomorrow exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery the following year. As was usual at the time, Martin repaid Adrian for his work by gifting him Expanding Form, a three dimensional work made of Perspex, stainless steel and wood. Years later, in 1984, Adrian loaned this work to the retrospective exhibition of Mary Martin’s work, held at the Tate Gallery. One of his 1955 photographs was also used for the catalogue that accompanied this exhibition.

Born in Folkestone, Kent in 1907, Mary Martin (née Balmford) was one of the most influential abstract artists to work in Britain in the post war period. In the latter half of the 1920’s she studied at both Goldsmiths’ College and the Royal College of Art. In 1930 she married fellow student Kenneth Martin; they had two sons, John and Paul. Although Mary died prematurely, in 1969, she left behind a legacy of artworks that have continued to shape people’s view of what “Modern Art” meant to Britain in the post-war decades. Having raised, along with her husband Kenneth, a family during the 1940’s, Martin was in no position to become a full-time artist until 1950, by which time she was in her ‘forties. Her career spanned just two decades, but during that time she made a considerable impression, achieving recognition for an intellectually rigorous approach to the making of art. Her first abstract reliefs date from 1951. Commissioned to curate an exhibition of abstract art for the Festival of Britain in 1950, Kenneth was a catalyst in Martin’s decision to abandon figurative painting in favour of abstract art. Influences included the work of Piet Mondrian, J. W. Power’s The Elements of Pictorial Construction, and artist friends, notably Victor Pasmore and Adrian Heath. Whether constructed in two or three dimensions, Martin’s work was shaped by classical geometries and vectors, with echoes of the art of paper folding, or Origami. With its mathematical basis—not least an interest in Fibonacci sequence and the ‘Golden Section’—her work was also in many ways an artistic response to the technological developments then taking place in the world of logic and computing, reflecting the philosophies of both Plato and of George Boole. As with computer switching, many of her constructions contain elements that appear open or closed, black or white, positive or negative—operating visually in much the same way as hinged windows on the façade of a building. This architectural quality in her work is not accidental;  in 1956 Martin collaborated with Kenneth Martin and the architect John Weeks, in building an installation in the influential Whitechapel Gallery exhibition This is Tomorrow, and not long afterwards designed a free-standing wall for Musgrave Park hospital  Belfast. Her monumental frieze-like wall construction, made for the University of Stirling in 1969 and experienced by thousands of students, still serves as a powerful expression of how Modernism shaped British society and intellectual thought during these years. What was important to Martin was that her work could operate in a purely architectonic way. She was less interested in applying artworks as an afterthought to a building. She was an influential artist, not least because of her writings on art and architecture, many of which were published in the Dutch architectural magazine Structure. 

Mary Martin with Black Relief 1957(?), perspex and wood. Photograph from Tate Catalogue 1984

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©