She came, she saw, she painted it in lots of blobs Veteran abstract artist Sandra Blow has had a long love affair with St Ives. She confesses all to Sue Hubbard
Space & Matter, 1959
On a Sunday it takes seven hours to get from Paddington to St. Ives by train. A reminder of how far away both geographically and psychologically it is from the metropolis. As early as 1884, when Whistler and the young Sickert spent part of a winter there, it became, for a group of British artists what Brittany had been for Gauguin; a place of escape, set in wild landscape, at the margins of civilized urban culture. Rivalled by Newlyn across the narrow Penwith peninsular, St. Ives achieved prominence in 1939 with the arrival of Ben Nicholson, Hepworth and the Russian Gabo. D.H. Lawrence had already written The Rainbow in nearby Zennor during the First World War, when gossips took his German wife to be a spy and Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murray had briefly been neighbours. Later, escaping from the drabness of post-war London, a second generation of painters began to gather; Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, attracted by cheap living and the luminous light of the bay.
Born in 1925, the painter Sandra Blow was trained at The Royal College and had spent a year working in Italy, when in 1957 she went to Zennor to visit Heron and his wife and took a cottage in nearby Tregerthen. Although for most of her career based in Sydney Street off the Fulham Road, in one of those wonderful 19th century artist’s studios that are now so expensive that only architects and film-makers can afford them, she moved back to St. Ives, buying up an old furniture warehouse as her studio, in 1994. A painter of gleam and shimmer, space, texture and light, it is not surprising that Blow has made her home there. She is not a gestural painter like Pollock or Ayres, nor does she make work full of ironic references, or ‘art about’ art. An unabashed Modernist, colour, balance, rhythm are what motivate her. Whilst never figurative or illustrative, she strives to create a visual equivalence of moods and feelings encountered in the natural world; a glimpse of light on water, the drift of tides, the spatial relationship between sea and land. Her work is, as she says, “of the world.” Whilst she would not use spiritual words, she concedes the power of those such as ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’. “I wait for pictures to ask for things,” she explains as we stand in a beam of winter sunlight in her studio, amid the preparations of her new show at Tate, St. Ives.
Her work has changed over the years. Early on there was a hint of Hilton’s line and palette, while the earth colours and addition of sand and sacking, showed the influence of Alberto Burri. Burri, an Italian doctor, had gone through the war in North Africa and been a prisoner-of-war. His use of charred sackcloth and other non-art materials shared something with Beuys’s of being expressive of inexpressible experience. Ten years older than Blow, he became her lover for her year in Italy. “We travelled from Sicily to Venice. I saw work through his eyes. I also lost my virginity in a vineyard in Assissi.”
After the year she came back to England. She was, she says a passionate and intense young woman, who fought tooth and nail to put her work first. She also needed to break free of Burri’s influence. She has never been married or had children, the lack of which she now occasionally regrets. “But, she says, as if not to seem ungracious, “I’ve had a very good life.” Perhaps such single-minded dedication was understandable in the male-dominated art world of the 50s and 60s. Established at Gimpel Fils at the age of 26, she remembers William Geer turning to her one day and saying caustically, “Every time you sell a painting you take bread out of one of my children’s mouths.”
She still works tremendously hard and is, for a woman in her mid-seventies, surprisingly youthful with her kohl-smudged eyes, in leggings, big paint-spattered shirt and woollen native-American style hat. This new exhibition will include paintings and collages from the 50s up to the present day. She has been working on what she calls a new installation, a wall piece consisting of 12 small interrelated square canvases. It is above all about colour. Each canvas is monochromatic with geometric spaces revealing the ground beneath. These are decided by moving around bits of paper on the surface of the canvas before she paints. Ice cream pinks, acid yellows, peppermint greens, the thin translucent acrylic zings. You could go on and on experimenting” she says, “it’s very difficult to get spatial effects with colour. I don’t feel I’ve got where I want to be yet.” In a beam of bright November sun the paintings shimmer, optimistic and youthful. “There is a joy in colour,” she says.
Sandra Blow Space & Matter at Tate St Ives, London from 11 December 2001 to 10 March 2002
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Images © the Estate of Sandra Blow
Courtesy of the Tate