ANTHONY BENJAMIN (1931-2002) moved to St. Ives in 1956, having had a successful exhibition at Beaux Arts Gallery in London. St. Ives was by then well established as a melting pot for talented British abstract artists.
The influence of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had been pre-dominant in the town but by 1956 the “Middle Generation” of Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter and Terry Frost were becoming well established in Britain as a whole and were soon to be known in New York. Benjamin purchased a house from the artist Sven Berlin who, on the occasion, wrote to his friend Bryan Wynter “Benjamin seems to have that strange fascination that goes with good painting and a vision of life ... if there is anything you can do to help this young painter ... I wish you would”. On his arrival Benjamin was befriended by Peter Lanyon who persuaded him to join the Newlyn Society of Artists, which he had set up as a reaction to the Penwith Society of Arts. Benjamin had his first one man exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery in 1958 .
Later in October 1958 Benjamin was offered a French government scholarship to study in Paris where he joined Stanley Hayter’s famous printing studio, Atelier 17. The new techniques he learnt allowed him to produce a group of etchings related to a series of poems by W.S.Graham. Benjamin greatly admired the poet and valued his friendship. Whilst in Paris Benjamin embraced the artistic community, specifically the “Beat Hotel” and produced a number of ambitious paintings with a new looseness no doubt influenced by his encounter with American Abstract Expressionism. He saw a Pollock exhibition but seemed to be most influenced by the Californian living in Paris, Sam Francis, whose use of thinned-down paint Benjamin adopted. The pieces he produced at this time earned praise from Peter Lanyon and prompted him to write about Benjamin to his London dealers, Gimpel Fils.
Benjamin returned from Paris to St. Ives in 1959 to share a studio with Trevor Bell on Porthmeor Beach, next to the visiting Francis Bacon who has borrowed Redgrave’s studio though the winter of 1959-60. It was an thriving period for the many artists in the St. Ives community at this time, with the Americans Mark Rothko and Clement Greenberg also visiting. When Bacon left, after the death of Eddie Craze, his companion Ron handed Benjamin, in the studio next door, many of his unresolved canvases, which prompted Benjamin years later to speculate on the value of the Bacons that underlay some of his own work. The strength of the work produced at this time earned Benjamin his first London one man show at the Obelisk Gallery in 1960 and later at the AIA with Brain Wall and Joe Tilson.
Yet in late 1960 Benjamin left, with the help of a scholarship, for Italy, and like Lanyon, Heron and Bell had earlier, he visited the Abruzzi mountains, Anticoli and the village of Saracinesco, where he developed a new style and direction for his art that was to be unveiled at the Grabowski Gallery in 1962.
On returning from Italy Benjamin’s broad and vigorous painterly gestures, that evoked the movement of the sea, were replaced by quieter and more formal compositions. The quest for the homogenous composition made up of shallow space and forms that fill the canvas was rejected for fragmented compositions with several points of focus. Norman Lynton identified the key stimulus for Benjamin’s revision of his aesthetics and practice as the late Byzantine and Gothic paintings that he had encountered in Italy and in particular Duccio’s Maestà at Siena. Lynton observed that Benjamin was struck by the precious and aesthetic unity of these works. Here was a tradition in the decorative and the expressive were thoroughly synthesised so that the whole pattern/image/object became one vehicle of communication.