Leamington has nurtured a number of artists who have gone on to enhance their reputations and enjoy popular acclaim.Thomas Baker, Fred Whitehead and Charlie Johnson-Payne all had considerable reputations. Terry Frost was one of the most significant British abstract painters of the twentieth century and always maintained close links with Leamington through his long career.
Terence Ernest Manitou Frost was born on 13 October 1915 at 27 Rugby Road, Leamington Spa and was brought up by his grandmother. He went to his local school in Milverton and on leaving school did a variety of jobs, from working in Curry’s to inserting the jam into doughnuts at a local bakery. As a boy, he had always had an interest in and a talent for painting and sketching but the nearest he got to being paid for his skill as an artist was when he worked in a Coventry aircraft factory as a seventeen year old and was sometimes allowed to paint the red white and blue roundels on the Wellington bombers being built there. Terry joined the Territorial Army in 1933 and was called up for service with the 52nd Middle East Commandos when war was declared. He served in a number of theatres of war and was with his unit on the Island of Crete when it was over-run by the Germans in May 1941 and Terry along with most of the allied troops became prisoners of war. He eventually found himself in a huge prisoner of war camp, Stalag 383 in Hohenfals in Bavaria.
It was while he was incarcerated there that his artistic talents began to flower. With empty days to fill and no worries about money, Terry Frost started to paint. The limited availability of artist’s materials was an ongoing problem which required a degree of ingenuity to resolve. Some paints were brought in by a friendly guard; a Scottish lad made brushes from hairs trimmed from the fetlocks of German Army horses and fastened these to pieces of stick with strips of tin cut from Red Cross sardine tins; the sardine oil made a good turpentine substitute. Terry also discovered that the barley used in the prisoner’s soup made good size and that the cut-down hessian pillowcases made a very serviceable canvas. Some of his earliest watercolours were done on pieces of blackout curtain. In spite of all the difficulties, he produced a large number of portraits of fellow prisoners who were in general a very critical bunch. In 1944 he sent back to Leamington via the YMCA nineteen oils and four watercolours for one of their exhibitions. He recalled that the camp’s ‘unofficial art critic’ just happened to be an Old Warwickian named Fred Mulley who later became a Government Minister. A chance meeting in the camp one day was to lead to a lifelong friendship with someone who would be both a valued friend and advisor to Terry in his early years as a struggling artist. The man who looked over his shoulder in the hut that day was Adrian Heath. Heath had trained at the Slade School of Art and under the veteran Newlyn painter Stanhope Forbes.
At the end of the war Terry returned to Leamington, married Kathleen Clarke and embarked on a career as an artist whilst holding down a regular job with a local electrical wholesaler. Many of his family and friends thought the idea of earning a living as a painter was both frivolous and rather ‘sissy’. He decided to hitch-hike down to London to track down Adrian Heath his old mentor and to seek his advice. Heath’s advice to Terry was that in his opinion St Ives was the best place for an aspiring artist to be based. So it was that in May 1946 the newly-wed Frosts packed their only tin trunk and left Leamington for the uncertainties of life in remote Cornwall.
The life of a full-time artist was something of a hand-to-mouth existence, more particularly as the Frost family grew and six children took their places round the dining table. Terry, unlike many of the artists in St Ives, had no private income and money was a constant worry. He eventually got an ex-serviceman’s training grant for an art course and with his part-time job as a waiter in the Sunset Bar in St Ives, the family just about managed. In 1951, he worked one day of each week for Barbara Hepworth, roughing out two large pieces of Connemara limestone for a Festival of Britain commission for which he was paid eighteen shillings a day.
As it turned out, St Ives was becoming something of a mecca for artists of every kind and one of the most exciting centres of contemporary art in Britain. Terry flourished and began to move away from what he called ‘fairly straightforward stuff’ to painting abstracts made up of bold shapes and brilliant colours for which he became known. In later life he exhibited widely and taught at a number of Colleges and Universities. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1992 and was knighted in 1998. He was proud of his working class roots and never forgot his early days in Leamington. He was a frequent visitor to the new art gallery in the Royal Pump Rooms. Terry died on 1 September 2003 at the age of 87 and is commemorated in the town of his birth by a blue plaque near to where he was born in 1915.
Alan Griffin 2013
Images ©Estate of Sir Terry Frost