This exhibition brings together the work of two very different artists, who nonetheless share an essential link to British Modernism and the history of painting in St Ives.
Trevor Bell’s (1930 –2017) career as one of our most important abstract artists begins and ends in West Cornwall. His relocation from the north of England to St Ives in 1955, at the suggestion of his friend and mentor Terry Frost, marked the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to exploring the formal properties of painting. Pictorial space and an emotive, sometimes spiritual use of colour defines his work, from his monumental canvases to his works on paper. Painting and teaching for many years in the UK, Italy and America, and travelling widely, he ultimately returned to West Cornwall, where in 2004 he was given a solo exhibition at Tate St Ives, and where he continued to paint until his death in 2017.
Liz Hough similarly studied and began her career in the north of England, but came to St Ives to pursue her career as an artist and dedicate herself to the subjective principals of Modern British painting. More strongly connected to figuration, but equally devoted to colour and the picture plane, she continues a lineage that has defined abstract painting in St Ives since the last century, and is inspired in particular by the paintings of Peter Lanyon. Like Bell, Hough has variously studied, worked, held residencies and taught painting in the UK, America and her beloved Italy, where she studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, and where she continues to paint and teach regularly.
Both their stories have taken the powerful influence of art in St Ives to far-flung places, translated, for example, into the hot colours of Bell’s highly abstracted, Indian inspired works on paper, or the rich landscape colours that define both Hough’s Italian paintings and her Cornwall inspired works. Both Hough and Bell have also spent their careers teaching and sharing their knowledge and passion for abstraction with a new generation of artists and can be seen as two distinct but important painters in the ongoing story of painting and St Ives.
Trevor Bell’s career as a ground-breaking proponent of abstract painting began here in West Cornwall, amid the intellectual landscape of mid-century British art. Bell was born in Leeds in 1930. He gained a scholarship to Leeds College of Art, graduating in 1952, and in 1955 he was persuaded by artist Terry Frost, who was then a Fellow of Leeds University, to move to St Ives in order to further develop his work. St Ives was, at that time, the epicentre of Avant Garde painting. Here, Bell found his true artistic direction, exploring an expressive style of painting related to American Abstract Expressionism and the gestural painting of mid-1950s European art. All the work Bell produced thereafter can be traced back to his first experiments with abstraction in St Ives: non-figuration, emotive colour and the flatness of the picture plane became the key elements of his work.
Trevor Bell spent the next six decades exploring the formal properties of painting. In 1959 he was awarded the Paris Biennale International Painting Prize. He then left Cornwall for a painting scholarship in Italy before becoming, like Frost, a Fellow of Leeds University. In Yorkshire, he became one of the first artists in Britain to work on shaped canvasses - often curved squares and skewed geometric shapes. It was during the 1960s that Bell’s work was first purchased for the Tate collection, and in the mid-1970s he moved to America, where he became Professor for Master Painting at Florida State University. Here, and for the next two decades, he developed the vivid, large-scale paintings which have defined his career. He also travelled frequently, in particular to northern India on the border with Tibet, attracted by the Buddhist monasteries that became a source of inspiration for some of his most important works.
In 1985 his paintings were included in Tate London’s ‘St Ives 1939-64’ exhibition, and in 1993 his work formed part of the Tate St Ives inaugural show. In 1996 Bell returned to West Cornwall. He was given a major solo exhibition at Tate St Ives in 2004, and in 2011 a further fourteen works were purchased for the Tate Gallery collection. He died in Cornwall in 2017, aged 87.