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The Guardian Remembers Trevor Bell

Published November 13, 2017

In his St Ives studio, Trevor Bell, paintpots and brushes at the ready, demonstrates the scale of his work, including in the background two of his ‘quiet five’ paintings. Photograph: Bobbie Lerryn/Alamy

Article courtesy of Mike Tooby at The Guardian.

The vibrant abstract paintings and drawings of Trevor Bell, who has died aged 87, helped define the modern art of the community of St Ives. But he also spent a significant part of his career in the US, where he is remembered as a charismatic teacher, as well as for huge, expansive paintings and public artworks.

In 2007 Tate St Ives was filled with works selected from five decades of Bell’s career. Paintings expressing the shifting light and surging gales of Cornwall and the vertiginous scale of the Himalayas sat alongside quiet, light-filled canvases. The exhibition gave a vivid sense of Bell’s restless energy, indicated the sheer physical achievement of making such vast and complex objects, and also gave an insight into his constant search for a still centre.

He was born in Leeds to Harold Bell, a sales representative for a chemicals firm, and his wife, Elizabeth, a teacher. Both parents encouraged Trevor’s artistic talent. On leaving Roundhay school in Armley he gained a scholarship to Leeds College of Art. There he met Dee Hobdell, whom he married after graduating in 1952. He took a teacher training course and, returning to Yorkshire after a short period in London, had various part-time jobs teaching art to evening and Saturday classes.

He was encouraged by a fellow artist, Terry Frost, who was then at Leeds University, to travel to St Ives and focus on his painting. Arriving there in 1955, Bell soon met the leading figures of the town’s burgeoning artistic community, and shared a studio with the sculptor Brian Wall in the basement of the St Ives seamen’s mission.

Bell quickly found opportunities and recognition. In the catalogue for his first solo exhibition, at the Waddington Gallery in London in 1958, Patrick Heron described him as “the best non-figurative painter under 30”, and in 1960 he returned to Leeds as a Gregory fellow at the university, the youngest to date. That allowed him two years of unencumbered work and affirmed his artistic lineage. At the time, however, abstract artists of the Situation group exhibiting in London distanced themselves from St Ives artists, seeking to set a new agenda in painting.

Like them, Bell began to use flat surfaces and brilliant colour, combining these with angular canvases. He began to feel uncomfortable with the St Ives label, even while he stayed in touch with his old artist friends.

An unsettled period followed the Gregory fellowship, and his marriage ended. He then taught in a variety of art schools, becoming head of painting at Winchester School of Art from 1965 to 1970, and married Eirian Edwards; they had a son, Sion.

Hammer (2012), an example of Trevor Bell’s dramatic use of colour. Photograph: Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery

Bell’s paintings were shown to great effect in an exhibition organised by the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1970, touring to Belfast and Sheffield. The American character of this work, informed by Bell’s regular visits to art colleges in North America, was debated by writers such as Heron and John Elderfield. In 1972, while on a visit to Florida State University, Bell witnessed at first hand the night-time launch of the Apollo 17 space mission at Cape Canaveral. The heroic modernity of the space race, the awe felt at the spectacle of fire and light, seemed a metaphor for Bell’s belief in the energy and optimism of modern painting, as well as being a source for a new brilliance of colour and elongated angular canvas forms. By now his paintings were huge. The first made in the US were included in a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1973.

Bell’s appointment as a professor at Florida State University in 1975 meant a permanent move to the US, and in that year, his marriage to Eirian over, he married the artist Harriet Corder. He and Harriet travelled frequently, and the Zanskar river valley in the Ladakh region of India, with its Buddhist monasteries and shrines, became a special point of reference.

The campus at Tallahassee was not an art world hub, but Bell could work there with freedom and support, and became deeply dedicated to it. He designed a huge warehouse-style studio with mobile screens to house multiple paintings in progress. As well as gallery work, he made murals commissioned for public locations, including Florida Queen (1981) for the passenger terminal at Orlando airport. The shaped canvases from this time were bolted together with thin strips of timber. The carpentry became rivulets and narrow chasms between shifting passages of colour and drawing that expressed weather, space and light.

On retiring from Florida State University, Bell returned to Cornwall, and by 1996 had restored an isolated farmhouse and barns on the Penwith moors. Its rooms were painted in his characteristic brilliant palette and populated with Harriet’s arrangements of found objects, flora and fauna – a form of continuous collaboration.

Included in Tate St Ives’ opening displays in 1993, Bell benefited from the renewal of interest in British modernist art that followed – and gained the respect due to a senior artist. He showed beautiful new work in galleries and museums around the country, yet the art world had evolved, and he found the intermittent critical coverage and lack of regular sales frustrating.

The continued support of colleagues in the US remained crucial to him, and Florida State ensured that Bell’s key American works were properly curated. A monograph in 2009 by Elizabeth Knowles and Chris Stephens communicated the breadth of Bell’s work on both sides of the Atlantic, and allowed him to feel that his work was finally available to those who might never see it in the flesh. In the final months of his life he was still in the studio, and still planning new projects.

He is survived by Harriet, by his son, Gregory, from his first marriage, and by Sion.

• Trevor Bell, artist, born 18 October 1930; died 3 November 2017

• This article was amended on 12 November 2017, to correct an error introduced during the editing process. Trevor Bell was a Gregory fellow at Leeds University, rather than Leeds College of Art, as previously stated.