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Poet of the Trellis: On the need to revive William Gear's reputation

Gerard Woodward, Times Literary Supplement
February 10, 2017

William Gear belongs to that select group of artists whose work has been the subject of debate in the House of Commons. In 1951 the Arts Council purchased a number of works from different artists, including Lucian Freud and Ivon Hitchens, for the Festival of Britain Exhibition, paying £500 each. It was Gear's painting "Autumn Landscape" that caused the furore, after appearing as a small black-and-white reproduction in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Hugh Gaitskell, then Chancellor, was called upon to justify the public expense. The publicity did much to help launch Gear's career and made him, briefly, a household name. Had he been equipped with the media-manipulative talents of a David Hockney or a John Bratby, Andrew Lambirth's new study of the painter suggests, he might have carved a more secure niche for himself among the pantheon of post-war British artists. Instead, he settled into a career of teaching and curating while continuing to develop a highly distinctive body of abstract work, his name fading from the wider public conciousness. In 2015, a show at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne (where he was curator from 1958-64), and now the volume under review, are doing much to restore his reputation. 


While the Festival of Britain controversy may be typical of a certain type of British response to public spending on the arts - and one that seems to recur at regular intervals - it serves to highlight just how far Gear had developed his interest in abstraction by that time. Although its title suggests a pictorial, natural origin, "Autumn Landscape" is far more removed from the realm of the representational than works by Hitchens or Graham Sutherland at the time, though Gear himself called it an "equivalence of an autumn landscape, rather than a depiction of one". It is a painting that displays its European influences, Paul Klee and Fernand Léger (with whom Gear studied in Paris in the years 1947-50) most prominently. Their presence is felt in the use of black lines and contrasting colours (missing, of course, from the Daily Telegraph picture, not that it would have made much difference, one supposes), though it has yet to acquire the more rigid, grid-like structure that became the distinctive characteristic of Gear's mature style. "Autumn Landscape" is a painting of collapsing energy, of organic forms giving up their strength in the twilight of a setting sun. It is part analytical, part romantic, a combination that Gear was able to build on using the European influences he had assimilated in tandem with his own background as the son of a Scottish miner, raised on the coast of Fife. 


Colliery pitheads and the vast network of criss-crossing girders that is the Forth Bridge were looming presences in Gear's childhood. It is their geometries of intersecting triangles that give his paintings their first distinctive motif, as though he cannot help but see the world through their intervening latticework. An extraordinary self-portrait of 1948 applies the same visual method to his own head, in which he depicts himself in black ink on paper, as a masive, dark superstructure of welded-together beams of black. It is a rare example of the pictorial in Gear's work, although there are other self-portraits done at the same time which are more objective, but which are executed with a similarly ferrous density and weight.


The importance of these densely black frameworks, the fact that they are a continous thread in Gear's work from his earliest years as a professional artist through to his last works, suggests a concious intent, though in interviews he claims his awareness of the importance of his surroundings as a child came much later in life. The Forth Bridge, which he would cross several times a year as a child, and the colliery pitheads of his home environment were instead simply the raw materials for a visual language that was available to him through chance and which he unconciously used in his work. As he said in an interview, "'if my parents had moved to Huddersfield or Southampton, I don't think I would have been the same person'".


The sense of place is of more central importance in Gear's work than for most painters working in pure abstraction, and it is not just the remembered childhood spaces with their dominating steel structures. As Lambirth suggests, there is a certain dappled quality to the patterning of colour against dark in Gear's later paintings that stongly recalls sunlight filtering through beech leaves. When Gear returned from Paris he lived for some years in Buckinghamshire, a county famous for such light. In writing about his own art (something he was very uncomfortable in doing) he states how he is convinced that a painter cannot entirely divorce himself from nature, and that one "cannot reserve one pair of eyes for looking at nature and another for looking at a painting". What he describes is a process that is the reverse of the representational painter's method, which looks at nature, then attempts to render it on canvas. For Gear the painting happens first. "It is only after it has reached maturity that I see its counterpart in nature".


The encounter with European influences began when he won a travelling scholarship after leaving Edinburgh College of Art, and continued through the war and into the post-war years when he became involved with the CoBrA group in Paris, an alliance of European avant-garde artists. The association was useful for Gear, but ultimately he decided he was "too pragmatic" for the group. "My work wasn't properly speaking CoBrA". Nevertheless, the association had a lasting influence on his evolving style. Lambirth identifies a certain tension in Gear's work between the expressionistic gestures of Abstraction Lyrique, and the hard-edged purity of, for instance, Mondrian's crossword-puzzle grid works. His acheivement over his long career was a blending of the hard edge with soft, diffuse colour, a consolidation of those early role models, Klee and Léger. However, a dissatisfaction with Continental theorizing - he wasn't persuaded that Existentialism, for example, had much relevance to painting - may have persuaded him that a permanent domicile abroad might not be the best thing. For different reasons, he felt unenthusiastic about the St Ives artists' colony, which he flirted with on returning to Britain. "I was from Paris, and it was pretty small beer to me. It was a small-time provincial thing." 


It is perhaps this sense of being not quite European enough to be a CoBrA artist, and not quite British enough to be sequestered away in St Ives, that accounts for the gradual weakening of his reputation. The pattern repeated itself in New York where he was taken on by the legendary dealer and promoter of the Abstract Expressionists, Betty Parsons. He was to share a show with Jackson Pollock, though he is quoted as being rather unmoved by the American painter - and dismisses him in typically pragmatic style, "I had done some dribbling in Germany and given it up - you get bored . . . I thought it was very amusing to try, but you're not going to spend the rest of your life dribbling, I mean". Lambirth devotes some time to highlighting the similarities between Pollock "the great netter" and Gear "the poet of the trellis". Both were engaged in developing a visual language that expressed a belief in the unity that underlies the phenomena among which we live. In the end, the New York show was not a success for Gear and Parsons didn't exhibit him again. He never gained a foothold on the New York art scene.


Neither did he seek to associate himself with the London art world, and took up a post instead at the Birmingham College of Art. Apart from thie self-willed avoidance of fashionable cliques, the purity of Gear's abstraction, Lambirth suggests, puts him outside the fold of British painting. If British abstraction has tended to favour the dreamily imprecise or the mistily obscure, the intellectual rigour and boldness of Gear's later paintings, with their vivid assertions of structure and colour, might seem to come from somewhere else altogether. Yet it is the balance between these qualities that makes Gear's paintings so memorable and distinctive. His use of repetition and his contrast of colour and form come across as extremely bold assertions of a language that is uniquely his own. With only occasional variations, Gear produced a consistent, coherent vocabulary of expression. The paintings from the 1970s onwards, in particular, have the feeling of a unified series - bubbling eruptions of colour cut through with blades or lightning bolts of black. Andrew Lambirth's exhaustive, lavishly illustrated book, which is admirable for the depth of its reserach, accounting for nearly every significant painting the artist made, and identifying the hose of influences that went into the making of them (and Gear was an absorbent assimilator of influences, from the Byzantine period onwards), should do much to restore this important artist's place among British abstract painters.