Nina Hamnett

1890 – 1956

Nina Hamnett photographed by Adrian Flowers, July 1955

On 7th July 1955, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited the artist Nina Hamnett in her London flat. The photographs Adrian took that evening are among the last visual records of this legendary ‘Queen of Bohemia’. Seated on her bed, Hamnett held forth for her visitors, recounting tales of her life as an artist in Edwardian London and Paris. Cheerful, ravaged, her face like that of an weather-beaten mariner, Hamnett sat, her crutches on the bed beside her. Also on the bed sat a man wearing a vest and smoking a cigarette, his expression thoughtful and pensive. Angela remembers him as a merchant seaman, a friend of Nina’s. There was also a young woman, a journalist. The photographs capture details of Hamnett’s home life, and her love of books and art; above the fireplace were stacked shelves of books, with paintings propped against the wall. A framed drawing of a classical head may have been the same student work for which Hamnett had been awarded a prize, half a century before, at the Portsmouth School of Art. A single candle, on a small footstool beside the fireplace, was likely the only source of illumination when the electricity meter ran out.

Nina Hamnett with journalist, July 1955.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1955, Hamnett’s second book of memoirs, Is She a Lady?, had just been published, and she was enjoying her time in the limelight. Other photographs taken by Flowers, either on that day or close to it, show her sitting at a bar, with Angela, and also talking to others around her. However, Hamnett’s recollections of her own life were often embellished for literary effect. She told different versions of the same story, and invented episodes, to increase the dramatic effect. She was clearly delighted with the photography session, and dressed up for the occasion.

Nina Hamnett and Angela Flowers, July 1955, at the Bridge House.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Angela recalls the visit to the bar as having taken place at Little Venice, just north of Paddington Station. The bar was probably in the Bridge House, at Delamere Terrace, close to the Regent’s Canal bridge, an ironwork structure that appears in a 1947 watercolour by Hamnett. In 2019, Kate Thorogood curated an exhibition of Nina Hamnet’s work at the Fitzrovia Chapel, in the course of which she debunked some mythologies, principally the story that Hamnett died in a fall from her flat in Fitzrovia. In fact, Hamnett appears to have moved to Paddington some years earlier: “It is understood that in 1947, there was a fire in her block of flats from which a girl tried to escape by leaping out of the window, only to be impaled on the railings below. Later, Nina would hear this story being told as if she were the one who tragically died. Having been made homeless by the fire and by all accounts refused a place in Marylebone Workhouse, Nina was rehoused in Paddington, not Fitzrovia. It was here she died, also from a fall out of a window. There are many versions of the story of her death, including some in which she dies impaled on the railings. Some claim there was a drunken stumble; others a suicide attempt.” At the time of the Flowers’ visit, Hamnett was just sixty-five, but she was destined to live for just one more year. In 1956, several days after the fall—which was probably accidental—she died in hospital.

Nina Hamnett and friend July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although her death took place in tragic circumstances, Hamnett remains alive in the minds and memories of many, both as a cultural inspiration and a cautionary tale. The story of her life has a stellar quality, but a desire to be the centre of attention led her to forego her own talents as an artist, and to instead become model, dancer, companion, and lover and muse to others, while neglecting her own creative work. Born in 1890, a rackety childhood in Tenby with a grandmother, a couple of years in Ireland with an improvident military father, and teenage forays into London’s bohemia had ill-prepared Hamnett for the conventional career expected of her, of completing a secretarial course, becoming a typist, and settling into suburban life. Having studied at the Metropolitan School in Dublin, then Portsmouth, then the London School of Art, she far preferred the company of sculptors, painters and writers, and, with her hair cut page-boy style and wearing brightly-patterned clothes, enjoyed being stared at by passers-by on the Tottenham Court Road.

Nina Hamnett in July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1914, at the outset of the First World War, Hamnett was in Paris, hard up, but contriving to remain at the heart of the artistic world that revolved around Montparnasse and La Rotonde. She drank with Zadkine and modelled for Modigliani, in much the same way as, while in London, she had modelled for Roger Fry, Walter Sickert and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In Paris, she took off her clothes at parties and, in the manner of Isadora Duncan, danced with a veil, applauded as much by the older women present as by the young avant-garde artists who delighted in this expression of artistic freedom. Although she had male lovers, Hamnett’s friendships with women were often more important to her. She married the Norwegian artist Edgar de Bergen (Roald Kristian) in 1914, but having brought him to England found he was a bore, and was not overly dismayed when he failed to register and was deported back to the Continent as an ‘undesirable alien’. Hamnett then threw herself into the artistic life of London with gusto, dining with Augustus John at the Tour Eiffel restaurant, sketching George Moore and Lord Alfred Douglas at the Café Royal, and working with Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops. In 1917-18 she taught at the Westminster School of Art, and her portraits from these years are among her best. In the 1920’s she moved back to Paris and re-joined the avant-garde, counting Cocteau, Stravinsky and Eric Satie among her friends. These were Hamnett’s most productive years, and she travelled back to London several times to attend openings of exhibitions of her paintings. Two volumes of autobiography preserve the outline, if not the emotional form, of these intense years; published in 1932, Laughing Torso is a window into the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and London, while twenty-three years later, Is She a Lady? brought readers up to date on her spiced-up adventures. Like many of her generation, the First World War had cast a long shadow over Hamnett’s life, and the onset of a second war in 1939 meant that again she could not travel to Paris, and so, over the following two decades, she continued with her bohemian life, holding court at the Fitzroy Tavern in Soho. With alcohol gradually replacing painting, she acquired notoriety, while her friends, in time, disappeared, to be replaced by drinking companions, who to a greater or lesser degree abetted her in this fall from grace. In her formative years, Hamnett’s father, an army officer, had been an overbearing and negative influence, fully expecting his daughter to fail in her determination to live an artistic life. After his death, she went some way towards making up for that disappointment, but remains nonetheless a compelling figure in the world of British avant-garde art.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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Portraits

Peter Lanyon

1918 – 1964

Peter Lanyon in his studio in St Ives, early August 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Peter Lanyon with Blue Boat and Rainstorm in 1954, observed by Angela Flowers.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

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.

Peter Lanyon in his studio, August 1954

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.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Categories
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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Anthony Hill (Achill Redo)

Constructionist artist
April 1930 – October 2020

Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Adrian Flowers: job no. 2025  June 1956  Anthony Hill (1930-2020), artist 

Famed for its spielers, houses of ill-repute and establishments such as the Coach and Horses and l’Escargot, Greek Street is still today the centre of London’s bohemian quarter. Extending from Soho Square to Shaftesbury Avenue, over the centuries the street had been home to many artists, including Canaletto, Peter Turnerelli, Thomas Lawrence, Richard Westall and William Etty. In 1956, the artist Anthony Hill had a studio on Greek Street, where he was completing a series of abstract ‘concrete’ paintings and wall-mounted reliefs, in preparation for the forthcoming This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. (The term ‘concrete’ describing abstract works that refer to themselves rather than to external reality). In June of that year Adrian Flowers visited Hill’s studio, to photograph the artist and his work. The shots taken that day show that Hill was moving away from conventional oil paintings, preferring instead to make three-dimensional relief paintings/sculptures, using modern materials such as Perspex and aluminium. One of the works that appears in a Flowers’ photograph, Painting 55-56 (Tate collection) was among the last oil paintings made by the artist. Hill described this work as a study in texture and reductionism, with horizontal lines suggesting the canvas was bound by bands. However the photographs taken in 1956 by Flowers inadvertently—or perhaps deliberately—provide a gentle critique of the concept of ‘concrete’ paintings, in that one shot on the contact sheet shows two square windows of the Greek Street studio, with simple astragals, while the next is of Hill’s geometric abstract paintings with their slender cross-bars motifs. Not only did Flowers photograph the paintings, he also took a series of shots of Hill and his collaborator, sculptor John Ernest, standing over a set of free-standing modular cube-like structures. Hill and Ernest were both keen mathematicians, and worked together on ‘crossing number’ in graph theory, an area of research that directly informed Hill’s art.

Anthony Hill’s studio, photograph by Adrian Flowers
From contact sheet:
Concrete paintings by Anthony Hill in his studio, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Born in 1930 in London, from an early age Hill was fascinated, and indeed obsessed, by mathematics. At the age of seventeen he enrolled as a student at St. Martin’s School of Art, moving on two years later to the Central School. Initially working in a Dada and Surrealist style, his interest in mathematics led him to become interested in geometric abstraction, which he felt represented a more rational aesthetic. Visiting Paris in early 1950, he met Sonia Delaunay, George Vantongerloo (a founder member of De Stijl) and Francis Picabia. Another artist who influenced him was Frantisek Kupka, of the Orphic Cubism movement. Hill was particularly inspired by Piet Mondrian’s work and the following year joined the “Constructionist Group”, a late offshoot of the Constructivist movement associated with revolutionary Russia. Other members included Kenneth and Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Roger Hilton, William Scott, Victor Pasmore and Robert Adams—the latter two were at the Central School at the same time as Hill.  Publishing a manifesto-like Broadsheet that same year, the group showed their work both at Gimpel Fils and the AIA Gallery, in exhibitions entitled British Abstract Arts and Abstract Paintings Sculptures Mobiles respectively. The Constructionists were not working in a vacuum, but were in touch with artists on the Continent, including Marcel Duchamp, the Swiss abstractionist Max Bill, and the American abstract painter Charles Biederman. They avidly read Biederman’s 1948 treatise, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge.

From contact sheet: John Ernest and Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

The Constructionists epitomised the search for a Modernism that would be viable within the complex aesthetics of post-war Britain. Although he had been making geometrically-based collages for some time, in 1952 Hill made his first abstract relief. By 1953, he had abandoned colour, and was making stark black and white paintings, in which geometry and free-form drawing were held in tension. A large painting (now lost) Catenary Rhythms was included in the exhibition Artist versus Machine held at the Building Centre, London, in 1954. That same year, along with Stephen Gilbert and others, Hill featured in Lawrence Alloway’s Nine Abstract Artists, a book which sought to distinguish between ‘genuine’ abstract art, and the more or less random styles adopted by those who had rejected figurative art, but who Alloway felt followed no coherent aesthetic. Alloway’s preference for ‘structural’ artists such as Hill, William Scott, Terry Frost and Kenneth and Mary Martin, was based on a conscious opposition to the expressive abstraction epitomised by Peter Lanyon and other St. Ives artists. The group showed at the Redfern Gallery in 1955, with a catalogue written by Hill and the following year were given prominence in the Whitechapel exhibition This is Tomorrow. Adrian Flowers was a steady presence at the centre of this ferment of creativity, photographing the artists in their studios as they prepared their work for exhibition.

contact sheet image of relief construction by Anthony Hill.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

After the Whitechapel exhibition, Hill gave up painting entirely, concentrating instead on three-dimensional work. In 1958 his reliefs were shown at the ICA, by which time he was incorporating sheet copper, brass, zinc and stainless steel in these wall-mounted works. The following year Hill and Gillian Wise, another graduate of the Central School of Art, became partners, and in 1962, Hill organised the exhibition Construction: England: 1950-60 at the Drian Gallery, a space founded by the Lithuanian Halima Nalecz, to represent artists excluded from West End Galleries. This was to be the last group exhibition of the Constructionists, and apart from the support of a small band of loyal curators and collectors, they faded from view. Hill and Wise went on to collaborate on works, including Metal Relief with Horizontal Elements (1962) now in the National Galleries of Scotland. In 1963 the couple showed in the exhibition Reliefs/Structures at the ICA.

Based on a high-minded aspiration towards an art that was self-referential and bore no relationship to the world of visible reality, Hill’s aesthetic was intellectual and personal. His often dogmatic assertion of the primacy of this approach led him to write theoretical essays, to explain his approach to making art. However, even within the rarefied world of mathematics, assertions of neutrality were not possible, and Hill’s art and writings can be read today as polemical, personal and even combative assertions regarding society, aesthetics, and the politics of his time. In 1968 Faber and Faber published Data: Directions in Art, Theory, and Aesthetics, a compilation of essays edited by Hill that consciously echoed the 1938 publication Circle, which had featured Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and others. Hill’s introductory essay, reflecting his own rigorous approach to making art, was entitled “Programme, Paradigm and Structure”. The following year, led by Jeffrey Steele, a number of UK artists working in this mode formed the “Systems Group”. Less committed to Marxist ideologies, Kenneth and Mary Martin, along with Hill, preferred not to become involved. However Wise, who had been researching Russian Constructivism in the Soviet Union, did join, and eventually this led to her breaking with Hill, who went on to pursue his own career. He subsequently married the Japanese ceramic artist Yuriko Kaetsu (1953-2013). In 1983 he had a retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and by the early 1970’s was making free-standing geometric constructions. In 1973-4 he adopted the name Achill Redo, under which moniker he exhibited at the Mayor Gallery and Angela Flowers Gallery, and wrote texts that pay homage to the Dadaists and Surrealists. In 1994 his Duchamp anthology Duchamp: Passim was published by Gordon and Breach. In 2012, he was included in the exhibition Concrete Parallels in Sao Paulo, Brazil. By this time, Hill was suffering from bouts of depression that sometimes made it impossible for him to welcome visitors to his studio, and was retreating into an intellectual and personal universe not unlike that of Humphrey Earwicker in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

“I asked LSC for a kick-start idea for do it. He gave me his take, but insisted I don’t credit him or refer to him by name. But I have done it. Lafcadio Svensen Carner, he said the short auteur’s cut was not to do it, to do nothing, i.e., it is not a thing you can overtly do. (How do they do it, these megamind pscientists?) They will never finally, really succeed in doing it when it = the grand theory about every it/thing. Best to switch to art, especially abstract art or pure absolutart—that’s where to aim (or aim to miss, as several stratagists convey). Re: doing it right, LSC said, “I could only come up with, you can either do it right or wrong, there is no tertium whatshit. (i.e. excluturd middleterm), there is the theologic of it. That and O’Kamm’s shaver, to the restcu.” (Achill Redo 2012)

Although characterised as an artist who championed rational intellect over emotional feeling, and methodical planning over spontaneous expression,  Anthony Hill’s work reveals not only a love of mathematics, but also an appreciation of the intuitive nature of art making. His work was informed by the development of computer language, with its emphasis on logic and patterns of connectivity, and he was equally immersed in the ebb and flow of 20th century art movements, such as De Stijl and the Russian Constructivists, but ultimately there is a personal introspective quality in his art that reveals the extent to which he was on an increasingly solitary quest, exploring philosophical questions on the nature of human consciousness and apprehension of the world.

Anthony Hill died in October 2020

Text by 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 ©