William Gear 1915-1997: The painter that Britain forgot
In the centenary of his birth, Towner is delighted to present a major retrospective of the work of William Gear, one of the leading abstract British painters of his generation. William Gear, The painter that Britain forgot traces the influence and prolific output of a now little-known painter who was associated with CoBrA in the 1940s, and produced some of the most radical and controversial compositions of the 1950s.
The exhibition draws together around 100 works representing the different phases of Gear’s oeuvre: from the pen and ink drawings and early experiments in colour of his emerging style in the 1930s and 1940s, to the radical, near-monochrome and block abstractions of the 1950s, to a mature, yet playful exuberance in the 1960s and beyond. Central to the show is Autumn Landscape, a work that caused a public outcry when awarded the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize in 1951. The exhibition also presents Gear as printmaker; he was the first British artist to present screenprints as works of fine art.
A Touring Exhibition:
City Art Centre, Edinburgh
24 October 2015 – 14 February 2016
Reviews of the Towner Art Gallery show
“Grid-like compositions, dazzling patches of colour…throughout, dramas of light and dark evoke the northern Romantic sublime ordered and controlled by French classicism.” – Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times
“The first thing that strikes you about these canvases is their colour, the way that patches of pigment shine through entangling darkness, becoming acidly luminous in the later works. The next is the dynamic force. Beyond these, though, lies something that feels even more profoundly evocative: a sense of something long-known made, through paint, somehow strange. This is not a feeling that can be tied down by dates. Dates affirm that Gear deserves a proud place among the first painters to bring postwar abstraction to Britain.” – Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times
“Don’t let the title put you off: Gear’s moody geometric abstractions are memorable in the right way.” – Guardian Guide, Pick of the Week
“Gear is best known (where he’s known at all) for his large, colourful canvasses, oils that often seem to have been painted beneath stained glass on a sunny day, their jewel-like shards outlined in oppressive black….but the best of his works, it seems to me, are far quieter…lucky, then, that this show is so extensive, for it’s on the many less attention-seeking of his paintings that the 21st century eye will undoubtedly want to linger.” – Observer, Rachel Cooke
About William Gear
William Gear was born in Fife, Scotland, on 2 August 1915, the son of Janet Gear and Porteous Gear, a coal miner. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1932-6, gaining a postgraduate scholarship that enabled him to study art at Edinburgh University from 1936-7. Winning a travelling scholarship enabled him to visit Italy, Greece, and the Balkans and to study in Paris with Fernand Leger.
Gear served throughout the Second World War as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals including a stint with the ‘Monuments Men’. In 1947, he settled in Paris where he met many of the leading post-war Parisian artists. After meeting Appel, Constant, Corneille and Jorn, he joined the CoBrA group, Europe’s most important avant-garde movement of the mid – twentieth century. CoBrA is an acronym based on Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam in acknowledgement of the founders’ nationalities and to emphasise the internationalism of their attitude.
The CoBrA painters emphasised spontaneity – an image, they felt, should appear on the canvas as naturally and quickly as a sudden change of weather in the world beyond the window. And it ought to be as impersonal as a thunderstorm.
William Gear exhibited with the group in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1949; however, beyond his association with CoBrA he had a long and successful career in his own right. For example, he was awarded a Festival of Britain Purchase Prize in 1951 and his work appeared at the 1954 Venice Biennale.
Gear was Towner’s curator from 1958 until 1964. During this time, he added to the diversity and modernity of the permanent Collection with his acquisitions. These included paintings by major British Abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards, and prints by both young and established printmakers. So successful was he in increasing the reputation of Towner, that in 1962 the Observer newspaper hailed it as the ‘most go-ahead municipal gallery of its size in the country’.
He became a Senior Royal Academician in 1995. His work is held in many major public and private collections around the world.