Sandra Blow RA (1925-2006) pioneered British abstraction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through her ongoing investigations of scale, colour and composition, and use of diverse materials. Following international success in the mid-century exhibiting with Gimpel Fils and the New Art Centre, Blow’s ambition of scale led to monumental, tactile works emphasising plastic space and surface tensions.
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Untitled, c. 1975
Yellow and Blue, 1985
Brilliant Corner, 1993
Quasa Una Fantasia, 2004
Touchstone 2, 2005
Sandra Blow was born in Amhurst Park, northeast London in 1925. Her schooling was ended prematurely in September 1939, when the outbreak of war arrived just before her fourteenth birthday. Along with her mother and two brothers, Blow moved away from London, to her grandparent’s farm in Paddock Wood, Kent, where she first discovered her talent for painting. Through her early teenage years, in the relative safety of the farm, she occupied herself solely with reading, drawing and painting.
Training and Development
At sixteen, Blow returned to London, where she began training at St. Martin’s School of Art, London in the September of 1941. Here Blow was classically trained by tutors Vivian Pitchforth, Robin Guthrie and Ruskin Spear. Blow then enrolled at the newly reopened Royal Academy Schools in 1946, where she studied under Alfred Munnings and Philip Connard.
In the summer of 1947, Blow travelled throughout Europe, with the intention of visiting the Renaissance art and architecture that her academic studies had relied on so heavily. Taken with Rome, Blow applied for a leave of absence from the Royal Academy Schools and enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Whilst in Rome, she met Nicholas Carone, the American abstract painter, through a mutual friend. Carone was a student of the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism Han Hoffman, and presented Blow with new and radical ideas about the nature of pictorial space. These ideas initiated a change in Blow’s own understanding and appreciation of art and its intellectual potential. Carone also introduced Blow to Italian abstract artist Alberto Burri, who was to have an even greater impact on her career’s development. Burri and Blow became lovers, and lived together in Rome for a year. Burri introduced her to a new kind of working practice, and to his own pioneering paintings created with sackcloth, plaster and ash. In the spring of 1948, Blow and Burri travelled throughout Italy together before she returned to London in the September of that year.
Blow did not return to the Royal Academy Schools. Instead, for three years following her return to London, she worked intently at home, beginning the process of assimilating abstract principles into her own paintings. During this period, she travelled to meet Burri in Paris, spent time on the French south coast, and she spent a summer travelling alone in Spain. After her travels, Blow moved out of her parents’ house, moving to her first studio, and home, a flat near Baker Street.
Success and St Ives
In the early 1950s a series of London exhibitions focused on young artists working in abstraction, many featuring Blow as a key practitioner. She quickly became identified with this ‘new generation’ of artists and, in 1951, began to show with Gimpel Fils Gallery, who showed her work regularly, and organised her first solo exhibition in New York. Her work continued to be shown annually at the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy throughout the 1950s, and in 1958 her work was exhibited at the 29th Venice Biennale, which further affirmed her international reputation.
Blow first visited St Ives in 1957, moving to a cottage at Higher Tregerthen for a year. Here she found inspiration in the rugged inland landscapes as well as the artistic community that gravitated around the Cornish peninsula, forming a particularly important friendship with the painter Roger Hilton. In 1957 and 1958, her work was included in several group shows of young British artists in Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany and the USA. In 1960 her work was put forward, along with the work of Victor Pasmore, Jack Smith and Keith Vaughan, for a Guggenheim International Award. Her work quickly gained critical acclaim, winning second prize at the John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool in 1961.
In the 1960s, she moved studios to a larger space in Sydney Close, off the Fulham Road. Here, Blow’s palette lightened and her work became more graphic, colourful and exuberant. In 1961 she became a tutor in the painting school of the Royal College of Art, a position she held for 14 years. She ascribed her use of stronger colours, in part, to the influence of her students’ work at the Royal College, stating: ‘It’s rather marvellous all this colour in British painting. It’s impossible to ignore.’ As her career continued to develop through this decade, so, too, did the sheer scale of her canvases. In the larger studio at Sydney Close, Blow was able to begin to work at a much more ambitious scale than she had ever been able to before.
She was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1971 and, in 1978, was elected a full Royal Academician. In the same year her work was included in the important group exhibition Hayward Annual ’78, held at the Hayward Gallery, London. This exhibition was the first Arts Council-sponsored exhibition in Britain organised by an all-woman selection committee that exhibited predominantly women’s work. During this time, numerous solo exhibitions of Blow’s work were held at the New Art Centre.
Return to the South-West
In the 1980s, Blow found that the climate of taste was shifting away from abstraction. In an interview in 1982, she confessed to a feeling of creative isolation, stating: ‘it is a bit awkward being an abstract painter now. The movement is over and I sense that I am out of step with those people who are breaking away’. Her work was included, though, alongside Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron at the Tate Gallery exhibition St Ives 1939-1964 in 1985, demonstrating, perhaps, that at this time her work was still being considered as part of the St Ives canon of landscape-based Modernism, rather than that of pure abstraction.
She had her first full scale retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy’s recently opened Sackler Galleries in the spring of 1994. However, after years of steadily increasing London rents, Blow decided to relocate permanently to Cornwall in October of that same year, moving initially to a studio overlooking the sea at Porthmeor Beach, before settling into a much larger studio and home in a former furniture showroom in St Ives that had a sizeable courtyard area that enabled Blow to continue to work on a monumental scale.
While in Cornwall, she participated in the Tate’s 1995 exhibition Porthmeor Beach: A Century of Images, and in 2001 the Tate held a solo survey show, entitled Space and Matter. She had a further retrospective at Tate Britain in 2005. Sandra Blow died, at aged 80, in Truro, Cornwall in 2006.