Sandra Blow was described by Roger Hilton as an ‘heroic painter’. Certainly her late artworks are heroic in size. Currently her canvases can be seen at three locations in Cornwall. The Exchange in Penzance is showing a dozen works from the 1990s onwards, including Brilliant Corner II. Familiarity with reproductions of Blow’s work is nothing like the awe-inspiring experience of getting up close to these enormous originals. Clearly visible are the puncture marks which show evidence of the artist’s experiments with collage. Strips of coloured paper or canvas cut-outs were stapled to the artwork in various configurations until it had attained the sense of balance and harmony for which she strove. Standing back, one can appreciate not only the scale on which the artist worked, but also the challenges involved in transporting and exhibiting such vast paintings.
Brilliant Corner II
1993 Acrylic and collage on canvas 203 x 305cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
Nearby, Newlyn Art Gallery focuses on Blow’s studio practice, including a series of polaroids which document different versions of an artwork - not necessarily sequential. On show are previously unseen examples of works from the 1970s. Visitors can also watch a 2006 filmed interview, ‘The Eye’, in which the artist acknowledged the sense of presence or mystery in her work, which she found impossible to define. These two linked exhibitions continue until early October.
Up to the end of September, an early canvas by Blow can be seen at Tate St Ives. ‘International Exchanges : Modern Art and St Ives 1915-65’ is an ambitious exploration of modernism in St Ives, locating its evolution within the broader context of artistic developments in Europe, the USA and beyond. Among the artworks on display in the central gallery, with its unforgettable vista of Porthmeor beach below, is a pair of canvases which perfectly embody the show’s theme. Alongside Alberto Burri’s Sacking and Red hangs Sandra Blow’s Cornwall, painted in 1958.
1958 Oil, plaster and sacking on board 120 x 111cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
Burri was an early and significant influence on Blow’s work. At the age of 15 she was accepted as a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London, under the encouraging tuition of Ruskin Spear. From there she moved on to the Royal Academy Schools. Taking a break from her studies in 1947, she decided to visit Italy. After she met the charismatic Alberto Burri in Rome, the pair became a couple and travelled together through Italy. For Blow it was a year in which she gained a profound appreciation of the country’s cultural heritage under her companion’s erudite guidance. Burri had started painting as a prisoner of war – an experience which forced him to improvise on materials. Subsequently he turned to abstraction, using burlap as a substitute for canvas. She learned a great deal from this radical approach to the making of art, far removed from her own academic training.
Aware of the need to cultivate an art practice independent of her mentor, Blow returned to London, but not to her studies. Her recent exposure to Renaissance and abstract art led to experiments with organic materials such as soil, twigs, and ash. With the addition of tea, these were applied to surfaces roughened by plaster or hessian to create artworks in earth tones. Her employment of a singular vocabulary to explore the possibilities within abstraction, ahead of its time, soon attracted critical attention. Contacts within London’s artistic circles included Roland Penrose, who encouraged her to participate in mixed exhibitions at the ICA. She was acknowledged as part of the British avant-garde, although she never identified with any particular group or movement. Early in her career Blow became aware of the difficulty of reconciling a life dedicated to making art with the constraints of a long-term relationship. Never short of male companions, Sandra enjoyed a lively social life but remained single, attaching no particular significance to her gender as an artist. She did not consider herself a feminist, and rejected the label ‘woman artist’.
From the early 1950s she exhibited regularly with Gimpel Fils. It was there that she first met Roger Hilton, with whom she travelled on her first visit to Cornwall in 1957. Already well-established as an exponent of post-war abstraction, Hilton was an outspoken critic whose opinion Blow valued. With his encouragement she gained the confidence to develop her use of line. Soon after her arrival in the south west, she was offered the opportunity to rent a cottage in Zennor, extending her stay for a year. With neighbours such as Patrick and Delia Heron, Karl Weschke and Bryan Wynter, there was much socialising and exchanging of ideas.
Back in London, Blow was invited to participate in the 1958 Venice Biennale. Her work was gaining wider recognition with the acquisition by New York’s MOMA of Winter, a composition in oil, sawdust and gauze, and Space and Matter by the Tate. A part-time lecturing post under the professorship of Carel Weight at the Royal College of Art marked the start of a 15-year teaching career. Her students during the early days of her tenure included David Hockney and R B Kitaj. In 1961 Blow was awarded second place in the John Moores Painting Prize with Sphere Alabaster. It was around this time that she introduced Roger Hilton to her friend Rose Phipps, who was to become his second wife.
In 1962 Blow moved to a studio in Sydney Close, Chelsea, where she was to live and work until 1994. Her earlier impastoed surfaces gave way to canvases of refinement, in which tea and ash were applied in subtle sweeping motions, inducing a mood of contemplation. The arching wave-like motif would recur in later paintings. While always prioritising structure over colour, Blow admitted that the introduction of brighter tones derived from exposure to the intense pop art hues of the 1960s. Another influence was African art. Her fascination for its asymmetry, the antithesis of the classical Greek style, led to the introduction of an element of tension into her mature work.
Tea and Ash
1966 Tea, ash and acrylic on canvas
102 x 91cm
Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
In 1978 Blow was elected a Royal Academician. From then on until her death her work was shown each year at the Academy’s summer exhibition where, in 1988, the ‘wave’ motif of the 1960s reached its apotheosis in a burst of joyful colour. Vivace’s debut at the Royal Academy that year was a wild gestural celebration of red. The spontaneity of the free-flowing V-shape was achieved by initially laying the canvas on the floor, throwing a bucket of paint onto it and directing the flow with a broom or mop. The impact of the explosion was tempered by the bright collaged strips characteristic of the palette of Blow’s mature years. Victor Pasmore described Vivace as ‘a masterpiece of Action Painting … by one of the pioneers of the post-war British abstract movement’.
A year later Blow returned to ‘action painting’ with the rhythmic Glad Ocean, whose title evokes the majesty of the deep. Even more monumental than Vivace, its exuberance is mediated by the interrupted border – a feature of her work which is often lost in reproduction. The great swathes of blue evoke a spirit of carnival, while a sense of structure is maintained by the considered application of shards of collage.
1989 Acrylic and collage on canvas 260 x 366cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
1994 was a momentous year, in which Blow was honoured with a Royal Academy retrospective. Later that year, rising property values pushed up rental costs, forcing her to give up her London studio. After much soul-searching, she decided to return permanently to Cornwall. Since her sojourn of 1957/8, she had maintained strong links with her friends in the artistic community there, especially Rose Hilton. Soon after her arrival, she took the opportunity of working from one of the historic Porthmeor studios in St Ives, at that time in a considerable state of disrepair. The following year she participated in ‘Porthmeor Beach : A Century of Images’ at Tate St Ives. Although spacious, No. 9 Porthmeor could not accommodate her largest canvases, so she moved to an industrial unit on Penbeagle estate, where a number of her artworks were irreparably damaged by damp. Despite increasing illhealth, the drive to continue working and exhibiting led her to seek out a location where she could comfortably live and work.
Behind a pair of wooden gates in a quiet street in St Ives lies Bullans Court. Originally a stable block, the plot subsequently housed a dairy distribution point, then a carpet warehouse, before lapsing into a state of disrepair. Its transformation by the artist in 1999 involved a substantial amount of building and restoration work. The history of the property is brought to life once a week by Jon Grimble. He and artist Denny Long knew Sandra well from the 1990s onwards and both are executors of her estate. I was lucky enough to be able to join his tour on a busy day in August. Bullans Court was Blow’s attempt to ‘re-create Italy in St Ives’ said Jon. The original part of the building became her living quarters, incorporating a first floor terrace filled with colourful flowering plants, vines and tomatoes. Onto this a substantial L-shaped extension was added, forming the studio and an annexe. The three-sided complex encloses an entrance courtyard, creating a feeling of seclusion.
A lovely light airy space with French windows along its length, the studio currently houses six monumental canvases. The atmosphere is very much one of a working studio, with dozens of pots and tubes of paint and pieces of coloured paper strewn across various surfaces, as if the artist had just popped out for a moment. High up on the wall at one end is a small window, accessed via a staircase beyond, from where Sandra was able to gain a different perspective on the canvases below. This ‘bird’s eye’ view, along with the polaroids, would often prompt her to rotate a canvas (with the help of her studio assistant) in order to achieve what she described as a ‘startling rightness’. Blow confessed that she had difficulty choosing titles for her works, as she did not think of them in terms of words. Sometimes an appropriate title would not suggest itself to her until a painting was en route to an exhibition. And during these years the exhibitions continued, perhaps the most highly acclaimed being ‘Sandra Blow : Space and Matter’ at Tate St Ives in 2001.
A modest room off the studio was described by Jon as her ‘doodles room’. This intimate space evokes the clutter of a busy artist’s everyday life. Above a small desk is a notice board covered with sketches, annotated with ‘to do’ lists and reminders. The room has remained untouched since her death. A selection of outer garments on display reveals Sandra’s love of texture and design - and her flamboyance. A dramatic striped Vivienne Westwood jacket was acquired specially for the celebration of Rose Hilton’s 75th birthday party. She wore this stylish garment only once. Just a few days later, on 22 August 2006, Sandra Blow died, aged 80.
The artist was held in great esteem by those who knew her. Jon Grimble conveyed the impression of a warm and generous friend with a great sense of fun, who continues to be greatly missed. In her paintings and in her Bullans Court studio, the spirit of this hero lives on.
1992/3 Screenprint 122 x 122cm (each) Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
© 2014 Helen Hoyle
Tours of Bullans Court take place most Thursdays at 11 a.m. by appointment only. Tel. 01736 756006 or email email@example.com.
My grateful thanks to the executors of the Sandra Blow Estate for permission to reproduce selected images.