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William Gear: The painter Britain forgot

— August 2015

Associated media

William Gear, Paysage, 1948. © the Artist's Estate. Image courtesy Goodman Fine Art

William Gear was the first artist to have a work of art widely condemned in the popular press for 'wasting public money'. He was ahead of his time – but has his legacy been forgotten?

William Gear (1915–97) was from 1958 until 1964 Curator of Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery, and for much of this time was embattled with the Borough’s councillors, largely because of his determined belief that modern and contemporary works of art should be acquired for the Towner’s collection. One of several begged questions in Towner’s excellent centenary survey show concerns the circumstances of Gear’s appointment in so conservative a resort town, for he had gained some notoriety as the author of Autumn Landscape (1951), the first abstract painting to receive a purchase prize from the Arts Council during the 1951 Festival of Britain, and the first also to be savaged by the press as a waste of public money.

Abstraction and semi-abstraction were Gear’s chief pictorial languages, and many of this exhibition’s 80 works demonstrate the vagaries of an abstract artist’s existence.  Nonetheless, the exhibition title is misleading, for it implies intentional neglect. How has Gear – the author of the first abstracts ever to be hung at the RA Summer Exhibition in 1960 – been deliberately sidelined until the present? No one is saying, nor have they ever: the suggestion of a  reassessment longer overdue was last made by Martin Harrison, in his catalogue essay to Transition: The London Art Scene in the Fifties (Barbican Centre, London, 2002).

The omission is as likely to have been either utterly inexplicable or caused by a more extensive and more malleable condition: Britain’s collective memory. Despite determined efforts, the 1950s remain an unbalanced era in national art history, denying clear analysis, and many of its inhabitants, with their work, have been subject to all manner of representations, re-presentations, and misrepresentations. Towner’s Gear exhibition is the necessary re-evaluation made fact, but without explaining the very lengthy oversight.

In the painting and printmaking that make up the bulk of his oeuvre, and of this exhibition, Gear’s work comes equally assured and searching within the realms of abstraction and figuration. A wall-mounted quotation within the show quotes him thus, c.1950:

I continually find that my pictures when finished are evocative of  something within my visual experience. It may be the corner of my studio or the view from the window of the tree […]  or a generalized landscape, interior or assembly of forms.

This is evident from the start, in the exhibition’s ante-room, where a brooding quartet of life-size self-portrait drawings of 1949–53 face a nearly full wall of mixed, and often very beautiful, drawings in a range of media and styles that represent his entire career. They successfully introduce viewers to the intensity of Gear’s reflective approach to his work, from the very start of his exposure to art: despite entry to Edinburgh School of Art in 1932, the formal term ‘art education’ is not easily applied to a man who so determinedly outpaced convention, and whose works seem increasingly to have become personifications, not just of a setting, but of the artist himself.

Much of Gear’s important creative activity before 1950 took place abroad, commencing in Paris in 1937 whilst on a travelling scholarship. It is said that In Edinburgh Gear pushed his work to the point of abstraction, but as this exhibition shows, Gear’s key influences were derived from European sources. Taught for some months by Fernand Léger (1881–1955), his work of the era refers not only to his master, but to a range of others, including Paul Klee,  Picasso  and Braque, and in paintings that precede 1939 and follow 1945, form and structure are core elements: Gear noted the possibility of subconscious references to early influences such as pit winding gear and the Forth Bridge, but viewers can come to their own conclusions.

It is more likely that when Gear was demobilized in 1947, after a wartime career as a ‘Monuments Man’  that gained him the rank of Major, and took him through the Middle East, to Italy and Germany, his visual vocabulary had evolved in ways he might not have foreseen before the conflict. From this period, energetic, semi-abstract watercolours and mixed media works drawing on experiences of destruction and waste suggest his pre-war affinity for Klee and Miro;   from this time also, and through the remainder of his career, are prints: the medium formed a parallel outlet for much of Gear’s career.

Gear is presented as a fully-fledged painter by 1947, executing untitled oil paintings on canvas of great power and cohesion, constantly challenging space with structural arrangements in which black geometrical outlines combine with a recognizable palette of ochres and deep primaries to form two- and three-dimensional forms, with added pinks, lemons and greens, umbers and whites. It is possible to ascribe influence to Picasso, but just as reasonable to make approximate comparisons with other contemporaries, which if proven would render the Picasso influence already second-hand. Either way, these paintings offer a sense of what would follow, and it is important to note that they do not reproduce well: a visit will enhance understanding.

Autumn Landscapehangs more or less in the centre of the exhibition. The circumstances of its execution, following Gear’s return from Paris, where he had exhibited with the European avant-garde CoBrA group (unique amongst his contemporaries in Britain), and its subsequent reception are charted in an information panel. So to that extent it is the show’s signature painting, and it marks a break with the past, not least because of its uncompromising abstraction. To this point audiences may feel that they have been able to follow Gear’s evolution, and that it has been charted with some clarity, and no one would deny this. But what of the amnesia of the exhibition title?

As a painting, Autumn Landscape does not reside in collective memory, but at another level it could be argued that Gear’s palette, with its intense lights and its combination of oranges, umber, yellows and muddy half-tones has directly contributed to the tonal history of Britain in the 1950s, passed down by designers such as Lucienne Day, who used similar colours in her own work. In 1953, Gear was invited to develop some of his ideas for interior design settings, and the period between Autumn Landscape and Mau Mau (1953), with which Gear’s interior design activity is associated at Towner, is instructive.

In time, these works have acquired different resonances. Between these two paintings, Gear developed his seasonal themes, with more coherent, rhythmic structures, some of which moved towards figuration with a return to the use of the human form. Of the latter, Footballers (1953) is as good a way to enter Gear’s work as any other, through a series of colour transitions using greens, greys, yellows and reds. The subject, reminiscent of similar works by Leger, Robert Delaunay, Nevinson   and Nicolas De Stael, is made abstract by using familiar features such as goalposts and netting, pitch markings, hooped shirts and stockings, to provide multi-faceted planes and spaces. It is an interesting variant on a slightly earlier painting, The Sculptor (1952), which may have been a design for one of several sculpture projects, and whose angular, gestural subtleties are more balletic in their poise and suggested movement than the monolithic organization of Footballers.

This type of activity was wholly in keeping with Gear’s sustained experimentation, and in that respect the proximity of these paintings with the exhibition’s selection of prints is also of interest. As noted, Gear made prints according to need, as an accompaniment to his painting: he was very much a leader in the evolution of screen-printing in Britain, and seen thus the near absence of pure Pop from his output is noteworthy, as a clear intimation that Gear was his own man, generally unfazed by trends and tendencies. Could this lead to an understanding of ‘forgotten’ in this context? That unless one runs with the pack one is overlooked?

There is little doubt that William Gear was an important figure with other important figures in 1950s British painting: Michael Ayrton (1921–75), Alan Davie (1920–2014), Robert Colquhoun  and Ceri Richards (1903–71) were other names whose stars have risen or declined with time, though their relative prominence has been greater than that of Gear, who nevertheless continued to work to the end of his life. The last paintings in Towner’s exhibition date from the mid- to-late 1960s, and are as searching as anything Gear executed in the previous 30 years. Words such as ‘meaning’ and ‘outcome’ are perhaps too exact for such a truth-seeker, and with them also, the essentially temporary nature of all exhibitions, however these may contribute to reputations. This is quite a show. Now that it has arrived, it should be visited.


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