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WILLIAM GEAR (1915-97)

Martin Hopkinson, Notes, Print Quarterly Volume XXIV Number 1
March 1, 2017

Andrew Lambirth's William Gear, which accompanied the exhibition 'William Gear 1915-1997: The Painter that Britain Forgot', is by far the most ambitious book yet published on this notable Scottish painter (Eastbourne, Towner Art Gallery, 18 July - 31 August 2015; Edinburgh, City Art Centre, 24 October 2015 - 14 February 2016, Bristol, Sansom & Company, 2015, 440 pp., 200 col. ills., £40). Quite naturally, the author's focus is on the artist's paintings. For a full appreciation of his printmaking we need to wait for the promised catalogue raisonné. Although the absence of footnotes and the selectivity of the bibliography are disappointing, the book rewards by revealing two forgotten prints executed in 1934 while Gear was a student at Edinburgh College of Art - a drypoint and an etching very much in keeping with contemporary Scottish adherents of the latter day Etching Revival. We are not told who initiated him into the rudiments of printmaking, but he may have been taught by Adam Bruce Thomson (1885 - 1976) and in etching may have found inspiration in the plates of William Wilson (1905 - 72), who had begun his studies in the same college in 1932. 


Lambirth tells us that during this period Gear also experimented with monotype. He returned to the technique in Norwich in 1945, before being introduced to traced monotypes by Jankel Adler (1895 - 1949) in London and to Lacquer printing by Karl Otto Götz (b. 1914) in Saxony in 1946. Although Gear had learnt screenprinting in Paris from the American Dorr Bothwell (1902 - 2000) in 1948 or 1949, it was only in 1952 that a commercial artist, Sam Wells of Edinburgh, got him to make any. Gear had already made four of five lithographs on Paris at the Atelier Jean Pons, where his close friend the Irish artist Stephen Gilbert (1910 - 2007) worked, who like Gear was a member of the artist group CoBrA. Gear's own description of working with the French master printer is that Pons did 'the preparation and fixing', while allowing Gear complete freedom in making the design, which Pons then editioned. 


Arguably the most useful contribution of this book is Lambirth's judicious use of quotations from some very intelligent comments on Gear's art made by contemporary critics and artists, as well as the artist's own notes. Particularly important for the understanding of the Scot are the following statements: 'My paintings often turn out to be designs for sculpture' and 'I am now convinced that the painter cannot divorce himself entirely from nature', although 'it is only after it (painting) has reached maturity that I see its counterpart in nature'. Indeed, virtually all Gear's paintings and prints are sculptural, reminding the viewer of closely packed trees and similar man-made forms, such as the towers for mining winding gear which he knew from an early age in his native Fife, and the poles supporting the hops in the Weald of Kent and Sussex, where he spent much of the 1950s and early 1960s, firstly in the village of Littlebourne, near Canterbury, and later as a pioneering and discerning curator of a small provincial art gallery, the Towner in Eastbourne. 


The only piece of sculpture that he is known to have made himself was the realistic stone Self-Portrait of c.1935, derived from a life mask. The central points of many of Gear's surrealist paintings of the late 1930s were sculptures. While in Paris from 1947 to 1950 he became a friend of Ossip Zadkine, as well as becoming one of the two British artists closely associated with CoBrA. Stephen Gilbert, the other CoBrA adherent, who also made lithographs with Pons, actually turned from painting to scuplture. Gear remained in contact with CoBrA artists after that movement's demise. He was particularly interested in the Dutchman Constant's New Babylon projects of the late 1950s, which were as much sculptural as architectural. It seems likely that Gear was well aware of the group of the now unduly neglected Continental 'abstract' sculptors who exhibited with André Bloc's Espace gallery. Lambirth compares Gear's approach with that of the English sculptor Robert Adams (1917 - 84). The artist himself compared his work (in a conversation I had with him c.1989 - 90) with the art of Antony Caro, calling a painting in the Hunterian Art Gallery as 'Caro before Caro'.


Among the images from nature, the late John Berger wrote of Gear's twisted tree trunks as 'dancing fragments of colour' and as 'a little like burning bushes', as well as 'a dappled flickering luminosity'. The Scot's greatness as a colourist has not been fully appreciated. His colour was much affected by the ever-changing light of the sky and the movement of clouds seen through trees, branches and undergrowth. Bryan Robertson noted in Gear's work 'vibrations of light and colour over foliage or the play of light on water', while Philip James described 'an effect of light scintillating like sunlight piercing the roof of a dark wood making the autumn leaves glow like fire.' Gear's fascination with the mediaeval stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral should also be remembered, as well as the subtle changes in the colour of this glass arising from slight differences in the light outside the building.