The painter Trevor Bell (1930–2017) worked within a tradition of the romantic sublime more usually associated with dramatic depictions of elemental landscape: it finds an apogee in the monumental canvases of John Martin (1789–1854).
Bell’s work though is abstract, evocative rather than descriptive, rooted in the artist’s sensory and metaphysical experiences of the natural world, in travels in Europe, America, India and Asia. Utilising the inherent life of the medium itself, in painting Bell has aimed throughout his career 'to generate emotion by the interaction of visual forces' (i).
Early on, and fundamental to his development, was a conversation with Terry Frost in Bell's native Leeds in 1954, when Frost was undertaking a Gregory Fellowship at the university. At his recommendation, Bell moved to St Ives the following year to find his own painterly language among the artists working there. The decision proved crucial, for there he made the transition from a highly formalised use of shape and somewhat stilted application to a more sensuous form of abstraction.
One sees this in Intensified Surface with Forms (1959), which though clearly informed by Frost (see for instance his Grey Figure, 1957), is notably earthier, its layers applied with brush and palette knife over green and yellow under-paint. Its scrabbling burnt-umber calligraphy, applied directly from the tube and with a stick before then being scrawled into with the handle-point of a brush, is close in spirit to the Catalan artist Tàpies. Like the Americans Kline and Motherwell – equally inspirational – Tàpies was influenced by Zen philosophy and meditation, practices with which Bell shared an interest and affinity.
Bell returned to Leeds in autumn 1959, and was there himself appointed Gregory Fellow the following year. While the influence of St Ives continued – in Yorkshire, January 1960 for instance, redolent of work by his friend Roger Hilton – traces of Bell’s later mature style began to emerge during this period.
It is apparent in the gestural forms of White and Near Blacks (1961), with its assured traversal of the brush, layering pigment in various states of dilution, in sweeps and skeins of blacks over whites, mauve-greys and shards of brown. Here the artist operates on the cusp of figuration, the painting’s predominant shapes forming a striding totem of the wild Dales landscape.
By the early sixties Bell was exhibiting internationally, including shows in London, Los Angeles and Paris (ii). He began to explore shaped canvases, circles and triangles, designing progressively larger and more complex multi-part canvases over the course of the decade: these were shown at The Whitechapel, London, in 1973.
Among works of this period is Folded Painting (c.1970), its switchback radials creating sharp directional changes in perception and movement. The aero-dynamism of such works demands precision, of the stretcher's construction and in the honed interplay of flatly painted or subtly textured heraldic shapes.
In 1972 Bell was appointed Professor of Fine Art at Florida State University, and that December witnessed the nighttime launch of Apollo 17 from Cape Canaveral. Though seen from afar, its impact was unforgettable, for as the rocket gained momentum, the sky became 'an extraordinary blue', while exhaust fumes and fire, propelled down into concrete bunkers, stood 'like pillars of fire' (iii). This intensely visual experience had a lasting effect on Bell's work.
It is manifest in the tapering pillars of Tall Seven (1975), and the pulsing horizontals of Five Bar (1978), in which monumental scale and diffused colour activate space and sensory perception. Bell’s exploration of the physical contours of the canvas as a means to convey meaning has continued.
It is evident in the most recent of his works catalogued by Art UK, Rocker with a Stop (1989), the 'stop' of its title that of a subsidiary shaped canvas in blues, which acts like a wheel lock to embrace and still. Both formally, and in its interconnected passages of atmospheric colour, this painting evokes planetary light and movement, the commencement of night or day witnessed from afar.
St Ives casts a long shadow, and notwithstanding the relative brevity of his time there in the fifties, art historically Bell remains associated with the place. His 25 years in America account in part for this, for despite sustaining a high profile there, he showed only occasionally here in the seventies and eighties. This also explains perhaps why, with notable exceptions, the majority of his paintings in UK collections are from the earlier part of his career. Bell returned to Cornwall in 1996, where he continued to paint, the quality and ambition of his work unwavering. He died in 2017, aged 87.
Dr Ian Massey, writer and curator – www.ianmasseyart.co.uk
(i) Chris Stephens and Elizabeth Knowles, Trevor Bell, Sansom & Co., 2009, p.143
(ii) Bell was awarded the prize for painting at the Paris Biennale of Contemporary Art, 1959
(iii) Chris Stephens and Elizabeth Knowles, Trevor Bell, Sansom & Co., 2009, p.37