British Abstract Artists

This short article on British abstract artists will give you a quick introduction to some (but by no means all) of the most influential British artists working in abstract.  

If you love art and live in Britain or are visiting, then St Ives is a must.  It’s a little piece of art heaven – beautiful beaches, fantastic light, wonderful walks and galleries galore, including the impressive Tate St Ives overlooking the beach.   It’s an inspirational place, for both artists and art appreciators and a great place to get an understanding of  British abstract art.


British Abstract Artists - 1930s to 1950s

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Barbara Hepworth,
by Paul Schutzer
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Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were two of the first British abstract artists, producing abstract sculptures and paintings in the 1930s.  After the Second World War, artists such as Victor Passmore and Kenneth Martin also produced abstract works.

Other British artists who were prominent in the 1950s were William Scott, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon. These artists were influenced by both European and American art movements. They lived and worked in St Ives in Cornwall, England and took their inspiration from nature and the landscape surrounding them.

Two major American exhibitions held in London in the 1950s had a significant impact on the work of these artists.  The first was entitled Modern Art in the United States and came to the Tate Gallery, London in 1956.  The exhibition contained works by some of the American abstract expressionists and was of particular interest to the British artists.   Patrick Heron wrote:

“I was instantly elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings.  Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt, as did their flatness, or rather, their spatial shallowness.  I was fascinated by their consistent denial of illusionistic depth, which goes against all my instincts as a painter.’

The second major exhibition was held in 1959, also at the Tate.  It was entitled The New American Painting and concentrated totally on Abstract Expressionism including, for the first time, the work of Barnett Newman.  These large scale works had an impact on another, younger, group of  British abstract artists who, for the first time, were able to experience paintings done on vast expanses of canvas.

The 1960s and beyond

This second generation of British abstract artists, working in the 1960s, took a different approach to their work.  Unlike the St Ives artists who painted from subjects such as the landscape, boats or figures, these artists advocated pure abstraction and excluded references to  any subject-matter outside the painting.

They put the focus on producing large scale works, saying that their paintings should be ‘abstract and not less than thirty square feet’.  This generation of British abstract artists included artists such as Robyn Denny and Richard Smith.

Other notable British artists are Basil Beattie, Gillian Ayres, Jeremy Moon, Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin and Barbara Rae.

Video: Peter Lanyon

TateShots: Peter Lanyon - Youtube video by tate