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Terry Frost

Terry Frost 1947

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Terry Frost left school at 14 and got a job at a bicycle shop in Leamington. He then worked at a manufacturing company before joining the army. During the Second World War, Frost served in Greece, France and the Middle East before being captured in Crete in 1941. As a prisoner of war in Stalag 383, Bavaria, he met the painter Adrian Heath. Heath had seen the portraits Frost was doing of fellow prisoners (on hessian pillows) and encouraged him to think of art as his vocation.

Talking in later life about his time as a prisoner of war, Frost said: 'In PoW camp I got tremendous spiritual experience, a more aware or heightened perception during starvation, and I honestly do not think that awakening has ever left me.'

Walking down the Quays, St Ives

Walking down the Quays, St Ives 1954

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Peter Scott Gallery

By the time Frost went to art school he was 32 and on an ex-serviceman's grant. He chose Camberwell School of Art where he was taught by William Coldstream. Coldstream was famous for running a methodical and disciplined life class and, according to Adrian Heath, Coldstream would be able to give the young man's enthusiasm some 'classical control'. He was also taught by Victor Pasmore, whom the aspiring artist described as 'my God'.

Pink Quay

Pink Quay 1956

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

National Galleries of Scotland

By 1950, Frost and his wife had moved to St Ives. It was in this environment that Frost's artistic vision found true expression. His paintings took on the feel of the landscape around him and he began to use a visual vocabulary – of circles, semicircles and ellipses – which his neighbour in Porthmeor Studios, Ben Nicholson, told him would last him a lifetime.

Blue, Black, White

Blue, Black, White 1960–1961

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Pallant House Gallery

It was around this time that he worked as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth, another artist who had found inspiration in St Ives. She was working on her sculpture for the Festival of Britain – Contrapuntal Forms – and this experience gave Frost the idea for his later painted constructions.

Black Sun, Newlyn

Black Sun, Newlyn 1982

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

The British Academy

In St Ives, Frost was surrounded by artists. In addition to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, Frost became friendly with Peter Lanyon. He also travelled to Paris to study with Roger Hilton and continued to visit his old mentor Adrian Heath. Frost commented that he was delighted to be around like-minded people who were 'genuinely trying to do something'.

Green and Maroon Movement

Green and Maroon Movement c.1952

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Sheffield Museums

In 1960, Frost held his first one-man show in New York at Bertha Schaefer Gallery. This exhibition was a seminal moment in the artist's career. 


Madrigal 1949

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

He said of this experience: 'In New York they all came to my exhibition, de Kooning, Rothko, Klein. Newman and Motherwell took me to their studios. I accepted it all as normal and they accepted me. They were all painters struggling to get somewhere like I was. They worked hard; they would sleep until noon, do eight or nine hours in the studio, and then starting at eleven at night proceeded to drink me under the table! Then we'd go at four in the morning and have breakfast at a Chinese restaurant.'

Sun, Sea and Boats

Sun, Sea and Boats 1952

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

Pursuing a career as an abstract painter had seemed a brave choice for a man who had come to painting later in life, and who also had a family to support (the Frosts had six children). But Frost believed that colour and shape could realise an image or feeling more successfully than figurative imitation. His works were grounded in the real world – his visual language was the landscape of Cornwall – and his works are full of colour and light. They speak of the pleasure of human existence, and Frost's own sensations and experiences. He had a sense of delight when looking at nature.

Brown Harbour

Brown Harbour 1952

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

He said: 'A shape is a shape, a flower is a flower. A shape of red can contain as much content as the shape of a red flower. I don't see why one should have to have any association, nostalgia or evocation of any kind. It boils down to the value of the shape and the colour.'

Frost was also a gifted teacher. In 1956 he moved to Leeds to teach, and also taught in Coventry and California, Newcastle and Reading. 

All Over the Place on Orange

All Over the Place on Orange 1971

Terry Frost (1915–2003)

Government Art Collection

He returned to Cornwall in the 1970s, setting up a home and studio in Newlyn where he remained until his death in 2003, always inspired by the Cornish light, and shapes of the landscape around him.

He was elected a Royal Academician in 1992 and knighted in 1998. As a teacher, Frost asked his students to remove their many pre-conceived notions of what things were like, saying, 'If you know before you look, you can't see for knowing.'

Jo Baring, Director of The Ingram Collection of Modern and Contemporary British Art