During the 1950s, Sandra Blow was one of the pioneering abstract painters who introduced into British art a new expressive informality, using cheap, discarded materials such as sawdust, sackcloth and plaster alongside the more familiar material of paint. A tactile as well as visual emphasis on surface resulted in powerful and complex images, exuding a rooted earthiness, yet full of mysterious flux and ambiguity. Later, in response to the optimistic climate of the 1960s, Blow’s palette lightened and for most of the rest of her career, easily manipulated collage materials, like torn paper or brightly coloured canvas cut-outs, littered her often large-scale pictures. The Matisse-inspired decorative manner of her middle and late periods was a seamless collaboration between the constructed and the freely painted.
Sandra Blow was born in London in 1925, the daughter of a Kent fruit farmer whose orchards supplied retailers in Covent Garden.
She left school at 15 and in 1940 entered St Martin’s School of Art, where she was taken up by Ruskin Spear, one of the tutors. The patronage of older male artists like Spear, Carel Weight and Robert Buhler would remain the pattern throughout her career.
Shortly after the Second World War, Blow studied at the Royal Academy Schools, but in 1947 ventured further afield and lived in Italy for a year. She motorcycled around the countryside, discovering at first hand the architecture and pre-Renaissance frescos. She took up with another father figure, the well-known Italian painter Alberto Burri. While Blow did not produce work of her own in Italy, she learnt a great deal from the Italian master of “art informel” and later adapted Burri’s manner of composing with sackcloth, tar and other low-grade materials for her own, perhaps more naturalistic, ends.
Upon her return to London in 1950, however, Blow began to assert herself artistically, establishing a calligraphic style in sensitive landscape drawings and a pronounced gestural handling of material in the paintings. Her use of dingy earth pigments like ochre, beige, brown, black and white to some extent mitigated the explosive and expansive spatial feeling engendered by splattered and flying paint marks.
Despite her youth, Blow was at the forefront of the abstract art movement in Britain during the 1950s. Along with Denis Bowen, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Gillian Ayres and many others, she broke down barriers and prejudices, using a charm and ease of personality to make abstract painting seem as natural and commonplace as sliced bread. Following her first painting sale, to Roland Penrose (a founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts), Blow’s career took off.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, she regularly exhibited with Gimpel Fils, the leading London gallery whose association with St Ives artists like Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon anticipated her move in 1957 to live for a year in a cottage at Zennor near St Ives. Blow was widely exhibited abroad throughout this time, establishing the international profile that her cosmopolitan outlook warranted. Participation in peripatetic displays of contemporary British art saw her work promulgated in Italy, Holland, Germany, the United States and later Australasia.
In 1957 she featured in the first John Moores biannual exhibition in Liverpool and was included in the Young Artists Section at the Venice Biennale the following year. She won the International Guggenheim Award in 1960 and won second prize at the third John Moores exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 1961.
The influential Zennor-based critic and painter Patrick Heron offered Blow accommodation at his home, Eagles Nest, from where she found herself a cottage to rent at nearby Tregerthen. Originally used by D.H. Lawrence in 1916, this cottage had a long association with the arts. In an adjacent cottage used by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry during the First World War, the talented young painter Trevor Bell worked; like Blow, Bell enjoyed the encouragement and patronage of Heron, Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon.
Never pedantically descriptive of precise topography, Blow’s pictures like Cornwall (1958) and Space and Matter (1959) - both of which were prominent in her 2001 retrospective at Tate St Ives - nevertheless seemed to echo the forms of the dry-stone walls, granite barns and large foam-spattered rocks that lay beyond her barn studio.
In 1960, having returned to the capital, Blow acquired a large studio at Sydney Close in Kensington, where she worked for the next 24 years. In 1961 she started a 14-year stint teaching at the RCA, at an auspicious moment when David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield and Ron Kitaj were among the students. Not a natural communicator and always curiously non-intellectual, Blow never became a renowned teacher, although her “studio floor” sessions with younger artists were masterclasses in the business of making ambitious, large-scale abstract pictures.
Blow was active socially, entertaining an admiring Francis Bacon in her studio and mixing with artists like Elisabeth Frink at the Chelsea Arts Club, of which she was a prominent member. Blow made canvases that celebrated the mood of the 1960s and beyond, light, open compositions punctuated with bright, eye-catching colour.
Although painters like Jennifer Durrant, Gillian Ayres and Joan Mitchell shared with Blow ambitious scale and expressive dynamism, she stands alone as the earliest and most original woman painter in Britain able to challenge the bar-room “macho” cult associated with free, informal abstract painting.
In moving to St Ives during the mid-1990s, Blow came full circle, reinvigorating a Cornish art scene bereft of the glories she had sampled 35 years before. For the first few years she worked in a beachfront studio at Porthmeor, but later built a large studio and home at Bullens Court above the town.
She exhibited locally but also fulfilled her obligations as a Royal Academician, participating in every Summer Exhibition at Burlington House, where she enjoyed a retrospective in 1994 at the newly built Sackler Galleries. An exhibition to mark Blow’s 80th birthday was held at Tate Britain last year, coinciding with the publication of a biography, Sandra Blow, by Michael Bird.