Michael Snow: Artist who became a stalwart of the St Ives scene


His pictures, he explained in a catalogue, were 'additions to nature, not imitations of it'

The West country painter Michael Snow, who often inserted his middle name “Seward” to distinguish himself from the Canadian artist of the same name, became intimately associated with the modern movement in St Ives, the artist's colony which won international acclaim spearheaded by the growing reputations of Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach and Ben Nicholson during the post-war period. Snow came to know the latter well, renting Nicholson's house “Trezion” for peppercorn rent throughout the 1960s and '70s and conducting a long correspondence after the older artist's remove to Ticino, Switzerland during the late 1950s.

Born in Manchester in 1930, the only child of a primary school headmaster, Snow had no formal art training but fostered an abiding interest in poetry, literature and the plastic arts at Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby and later as a librarian in Manchester. The postwar Manchester scene was lively, with Lowry, the Manchester Academy and the Midday Studios in full flow. With Tony Connor and Malcolm Bishop, Snow co-founded the Peterloo Group in the city in 1957.

It was, however, to the modernist art colony of St Ives that Snow was attracted after seeing an exhibition of St Ives art in Liverpool. Like the Liverpool-trained painter Alexander MacKenzie, Snow moved toCornwall in 1951, shortly after the founding of the Penwith Society of Arts, a breakaway from the traditional Society of Artists. Led by Hepworth and Nicholson this new organisation gave official voice to a distinctive, even idiosyncratic, landscape abstraction. Snow's distillation of landscape form made him a natural Penwith candidate, and in 1953 he was elected a member, becoming secretary the following year.

Early non-figurative works revealed almost musical harmonies of shape, colour and form. He was particularly enamoured of the lyrical linearity of John Wells, W Barns-Graham, Alex Mackenzie and later George Dannatt. The scraped and scratched textures of early works like Myriad (1959) were succeeded during the early 1960s by larger, more decorative strategies. Elegantly though spontaneously composed symphonies of boulder-like forms, rapidly sketched in charcoal, and colour elements, had tangible landscape associations without specific topographic reference. The titles Earthship and Earth Pillar (1963) and Kenidjac and Edge (1964), though merely poetic afterthoughts, betrayed romantic landscape themes.

While his early work recalled Nicholson and Wells and adhered to a durable, in-house Penwith neo-constructivist landscape style, Snow remained creatively on the move, his 1960s works bearing more resemblance to the painterly expressionism of Bryan Wynter, Terry Frost and Hilton. Gestural exuberance was, however, held in check by Snow's insistence on structure, balance and poise. By the 1970s and beyond, Snow's personal scientific interests, ranging from mineralogy to cosmology, informed compositions like Sun and Moon (1959) and Blue Planet (1961), the latter clearly echoing the burgeoning space race. Lingering cosmological content led, 30 years later, to a disembodied celestial pointillism, pulsating planet and solar objects emerging from a flickering field of complementary hot orange and sky blue flecks.

He had a touchingly heartfelt interest in astronomy. Driving back to St Ives from the sculptor Denis Mitchell's funeral in March 1993, Snow left the sculptor Roger Leigh and myself in the car and without explanation unloaded a telescope to stargaze. In similar manner Snow entered the field of education with an interdisciplinary openness that made him an instant hit with students. Between 1965-85 he taught at the vibrant Exeter College of Art, where he became Director of the Combined Honours course offered by Exeter University in association with the College. After retiring he was bequeathed the literary estate of his friend, the poet WS Graham. In 1999 Snow and his second wife Margaret published The Nightfisherman - Selected Letters of WS Graham.

Snow's output hoisted quality over quantity. He shunned publicity and could be difficult,intransigent and overly precious concerning the sale of work. Snow's succinct catalogue statement for his 24-work show at London's Rowan Gallery in 1964 explained his pictures as "additions to nature, not imitations of it. I may receive a stimulus to start work from a new landscape but my real problem is the solution of the canvas... Painting matters if it is honest... because it is not only a visual addition to our environment - it is the only way to learn to see."

 

Michael Nevill Seward Snow, painter and teacher: born Manchester 27 June 1930; married 1950 Sylvia Jarrett (divorced 1956), 1957 Margaret Lambert (one son); died Hillerton Cross, Devon 15 July 2012.

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