This vibrant exhibition has found its ideal location in Cornwall, where Frost made his home and became one of Britain’s greatest abstract painters.
During the Second World War he served in the Cavalry and the Commandos. He was captured in Crete in 1941, and spent the next four years as a German Prisoner of War. It was in Bavaria, in Stalag 383, that he became a painter, inspired by a fellow POW, the artist Adrian Heath. Artistic materials were hard to find in Stalag 383, so Frost learnt to improvise.
He made an easel from old Red Cross boxes and paintbrushes from shaving brushes. He used blackout blinds for canvas and sardine oil for turpentine.
This PoW camp became his university (he was always a glass-half-full kind of guy).
After the war he went to London, to study at Camberwell Art School, then travelled south, to the Cornish town of St Ives.
Built of granite and surrounded on three sides by the ocean, the light and landscape in St Ives is unique. It’s always been a paradise for painters, a great escape from the big city smog, and the pressures of the rat race.
Here an artist could live cheaply, and make friends with other artists. Frost met Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (he worked as Hepworth’s assistant for a while).
Here at the southern end of England, Terry and his wife Kathleen raised six children – a girl and five boys, including two artists, Adrian and Anthony, and the actor and comedian Stephen Frost, who’s been a driving force behind this centenary show.
“He had a great lust for life,” says Stephen, over a pint in London’s Borough Market, just down the road from Camberwell, where his father trained after the War. “It was always Guinness and champagne, and laughing and jokes.”
Stephen would come in from the beach to find his father engaged in jovial arguments with his fellow artists, over several bottles of red wine. “‘No! There are 89 blacks! You can’t use that green against that blue!'”
Frost was a dedicated artist, but he was a dedicated father too. He’d cook breakfast every morning for all six kids, to give their mum a break. “He was a lovely dad,” says Stephen. “He’d go to the studio every day, then come back and play with us in the evening.”
And he taught his children to paint. “We’d all go up to the studio, and he’d give us a pot of paint and a piece of paper and a brush.” “Paint that!” he used to tell them, pointing to the seascape outside.
Frost’s pictures don’t seem figurative at first glance, but look closer and you realise they’re really landscapes in disguise.
His early paintings were inspired by the Cornish scenery: boats bobbing in the harbour, sunlight dancing on the waves. When he moved to Yorkshire, to teach at Leeds University, he painted low horizons, the snow smothering the Yorkshire Moors.
Frost was widely admired (especially by other artists) but his work went in and out of fashion, as the work of most artists tends to do.
Like a lot of artists, he had to teach to pay the bills, but he was a brilliant teacher and his pupils adored him. As Stephen says: “I still meet people today who say, ‘Your dad taught me and he was great. He was always positive, never negative. Even if what we’d done was rubbish, he’d say, “Try this, try that.”‘”
When Stephen became an actor, his dad was equally encouraging, trekking along to his first nights. “Well done, my boy,” he’d say afterwards. “Keep doing it! Keep being different! Keep being original! Now let’s go down the pub!”
After a spell as Professor of Painting at Reading University, Terry returned to Cornwall, with Kathleen, to a house and studio in Newlyn. Even in old age, his love of painting never faltered. “He was passionate about it,” says Stephen. “He’d say, ‘I thought I’d painted all 89 blacks, but I’ve just found two more!'”
Knighted in 1998, he carried on painting until the day he died, in 2003. His beloved Kathleen died a few months later.
This uplifting exhibition is a fitting tribute to a remarkable man who found happiness wherever he went and shared his happiness with everyone he met – not only through his joyful paintings, but through his infectious joie de vivre.
Terry Frost is at Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange (Penzance) from 10 October to 9 January 2016.