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1970 Sandra Blow

Shortly after the opening of the Summer Exhibition in May 1970, the Editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, defended his paper’s lack of coverage on the grounds that the Royal Academy had “ceased to have that sort of importance” for the simple reason that Britain’s leading artists were notably absent.1 On the other hand, several critics detected a change. “After many moribund years in the doghouse,” according to The Observer’s reviewer, “the Royal Academy Summer Show suddenly lifts up its head this week and shows signs of being alive.”2 Terence Mullaly, writing in The Daily Telegraph, went so far as to hail it as the “best-hung show in its 200-year history”.3 There were fewer works than usual (1,051 in all: 361 entered by Academicians and 690 selected from 7,976 outside submissions) and a greater sense of coherence in the hang, giving, in the words of The Glasgow Herald’s reviewer, “a sense throughout of space and light complemented by clear masses of colour. Epitomising this is one of the largest paintings in the exhibition, a brilliant abstract, ‘Green and White’ by Sandra Blow.”4 (Fig. 1)

Blow was no stranger to the Summer Exhibition. She was just twenty in 1946, about to graduate from St Martin’s School of Art, when one of her works was selected by the jury. Her work as a student was figurative, following the lead of up-and-coming artists like Lucian Freud and John Craxton, whom she met as habitués of the Colony Club in Soho. At St Martin’s, Ruskin Spear was one of her tutors whom she described as “incredibly encouraging, he kept on saying to me ‘Bloody good!’”5 He remained supportive, while lamenting the loss of a promising young portrait painter when she turned to abstraction. She did so as a result of her move to Rome in 1947 and her association with Alberto Burri, a leading exponent of arte povera, whose use of unconventional materials, including ash, sand, tar and glue, influenced her own artistic process.

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In 1951, she was taken on by Gimpel Fils, after she took six of her best pictures in a taxi to the gallery in Mayfair. Through Peter Gimpel, she met Roger Hilton, who introduced her to Patrick Heron and as a result, in 1957–1958, she spent a year and a half working in a cottage she rented in Tregerthen, Cornwall, where her neighbours included Trevor Bell and Karl Weschke. By the end of the decade, Blow had assembled the principal ingredients of her own, unique form of abstraction, consisting of textured surfaces made up from earth, ash, and cement, of gestural painting as much akin to St Ives as to New York, and of space and light derived from the Cornish landscape. Space and Matter of 1959, painted in oil on hardboard, exemplifies all of these characteristics, with its heavily worked, gritty surface out of which the abstract forms emerge to contrast with the light and airy space which surrounds them, as changeable as the earth and sky to which they distantly refer (Fig. 2). Meanwhile her reputation was growing. She exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1958, won a Guggenheim International Award in 1960, and took second prize at the John Moores’, Liverpool, in 1961. By then, her work was represented in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Gallery, London.

From 1965 onwards, Blow’s name appeared annually in the catalogues of the Summer Exhibition (1967 was a single exception). So much so that in 1970 she was referred to as “an ‘outsider’ regular” in What’s on in London. A year later, her status changed when she was elected an Associate, but in another sense she remained an outsider, as one of very few abstract painters whose work was shown regularly at the Academy before the concerted effort in the mid-1970s to attract a wider spectrum of artistic talent. To judge from the amount of critical attention it received, it is reasonable to speculate that the relative isolation of Green and White may have given it added prominence when it was shown in 1970. It was certainly a good choice—an impressively large canvas measuring 304.8 x 304.8 cm, striking in its deceptive simplicity of design and its vibrant colour, in marked contrast to Blow’s earlier, more heavily worked canvases. During the 1960s, she had switched from oils to acrylics, attracted by their versatility and quick-drying properties. She retained her allegiance to charcoal underdrawing, however, and to mixing ash from the stove in her studio along with other additives to her pigments.

The materiality of Green and White is underlined by its physical condition. While it was a work-in-progress, it was slashed vertically (not by Blow), who then chose to mend the tear, incorporating the repair into the surface of the painting as a sign of both accident and design. If her use of charcoal once owed something to Hilton, here the underdrawing is far more disciplined and tightly bound into the bold architectural structure of the composition. The three subtly different shades of green which dominate the canvas are disrupted by the two white forms which run not quite vertically from the top and the bottom respectively towards the centre, but not touching. Each remains an independent element, asserting itself against the verdant fields of colour and resisting the certainties of hard-edged geometry. Asymmetrical but balanced, the picture recalls Blow’s remark to Lambirth that: “if we lose our balance we fall over. I think in that way a picture has a kind of biological balance in it.”6 Green and White is rightly seen as a milestone in Blow’s career—a masterpiece of pure painting, which anticipates her later collages. Like Matisse before her, she used collage to simplify further the dynamic juxtaposition of formal elements in her pictures, and in the process to become one of the leading colourists of her generation. Yet without the rigorous structure, the kind of scaffolding we see in Green and White, she insisted that the colour by itself would be meaningless. Even before she retired to Cornwall in 1994, returning permanently to that landscape which had played such an important part in her maturity as a painter, she made a habit of driving to Exmoor from London, taking her unfinished paintings with her to work en plein air and to see if, as she explained to Lambirth, they “stood up to the colours and textures, the light and spaces of nature.”7

In 1994, the year of Blow’s retrospective at the Academy, Green and White was purchased by the trustees of the Chantrey Bequest and presented to the Tate Gallery. In his Foreword to the catalogue of her exhibition, the President, Roger de Grey, saluted her as “a heroic painter”, who remained “a single-minded artist”, adding that hers was “a solitary calling.”8 It was left to Norbert Lynton, who had singled out Green and White in his review of the Summer Exhibition of 1970, to point out that she had “built a remarkable career out of guts and talent … (as) an abstract painter demonstrating a remarkable range and force in the face of fashion’s aversion.”9 Sandra Blow had also proved to be one of the Academy’s most enduring and loyal members, who blazed the trail unwaveringly for abstraction as the preferred means of artistic expression in the late twentieth century.

  1. Rees-Mogg’s comments were made first in The Evening Standard on Friday, 22 May 1970, and were repeated in a feature article the following Monday, 25 May 1970.↩︎

  2. The Observer, 3 May 1970.↩︎

  3. Terence Mullaly, “Best-Hung Show in its 200-Year History”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1970.↩︎

  4. Author unknown, “London Letter”, The Glasgow Herald, 1 May 1970.↩︎

  5. From an interview with Andrew Lambirth for the National Sound Archive, 1996.↩︎

  6. From an interview with Andrew Lambirth for the National Sound Archive, 1996.↩︎

  7. From an interview with Andrew Lambirth for the National Sound Archive, 1996.↩︎

  8. Roger de Grey, Foreword to Sandra Blow (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1994).↩︎

  9. Roger de Grey, Foreword to Sandra Blow.↩︎

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