Sandra Blow was always, after her student years as a figurative artist training at St Martin’s School of Art in London (1941-46) and the Royal Academy Schools (1946-47), an abstractionist. She also went to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome in 1947 where she found her direction as a painter, when the Italian abstract artist Alberto Burri became her lover. Her association there with Burri underpinned her work throughout her life, but he was 10 years older than her and his influence was overwhelming, so she returned to England in 1948 to find her own manner.
It never was easy to make it as a female artist, and in the 50s it wasn’t easy to be an abstractionist either. But Gimpel Fils took on Blow in 1951, gave her regular exhibitions, and organised her first one-woman show in New York. Apart from the annual summer show at the Royal Academy, Blow also exhibited at the Venice Biennale and, in 1961, won second prize at the John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool. For 14 years from 1961 she was a tutor in the painting school of the Royal College of Art and was appointed an honorary fellow.
Her first experience of St Ives was in 1957, when she rented a cottage in the nearby hamlet of Tregerthen (where DH Lawrence and Frieda had lived during the first world war and many artists had subsequently worked). She returned to London but made working visits to the West Penwith peninsula often enough to be included in the overview at the Tate Gallery on Millbank in London in 1985, called St Ives 1939-64. There she showed alongside artists more readily associated with the area, including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Wilhemina Barnes-Graham. In 1994 Blow went back to live in St Ives permanently, for although famous she could no longer afford a studio in London.
Space And Matter, indeed, was the title of the exhibition of Blow’s work that practically filled Tate St Ives in 2001-2002. She was always liable to work with collage as one element of her paintings and in early days might stain canvas with tea as one of her colours. Her later work became relaxed and colourful. Sometimes she would throw the paint at the canvas: a method that she might not have thought to use without the uninhibited example of the American abstract expressionists in the 40s and 50s, but whose energy she adapted to an open and joyous lyricism.
Blow maintained that events in her personal life often affected the appearance of her painting, not, of course, in an illustrational way, but in the tensions and clashes of the jostling marks on the canvas. But she believed also that abstract art did not simply reach its own natural audience, but gained some of its validity by feeding back into the broader visual life of the nation as fashion and architecture and design.
Sandra Blow, artist, born September 14 1925; died August 22 2006.