Out there modernism and modern art: The forgotten genius of abstract painter William Gear

By Mark Sheerin | 10 September 2015

Mark Sheerin speaks to Towner Curator Nathaniel Hepburn about William Gear - The painter that Britain forgot

An abstract painting inspired by landscape
William Gear, Landscape, 1949© Copyright the Artist's Estate. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh
It’s a tale of social mobility which represents the best of the 20th century art world. A miner’s son from Fife in Scotland comes to be a Royal Academician. In 1948 he describes himself as a "Parisian", no less, and with reason. In post-war Britain he was perhaps the most outward-looking painter on these shores.

In 1954 Gear represented the UK at the Venice Biennale. But look for a record on the British Council website and you’ll find no link to a biography. He is one of only three painters out of fourteen who exist only as unillustrated names. Proof, if proof were needed, that we have indeed forgotten one of our most groundbreaking artists of the 20th century.

Not so in Eastbourne. Between 1958 and 1964 he was curator at the Towner and in that time acquired 311 paintings to his cosmopolitan taste. And now the South Coast gallery is celebrating 100 years since Gear’s birth. Curator Nathaniel Hepburn is clear about what he wants to achieve.

Abstract painting inspired by landscape
William Gear, Autumn Landscape, 1950© Copyright the Artist's Estate. Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Laing Art Gallery
“People are very excited by his work.” he tells me via phone shortly after leading a successful tour of the show. “There’s interest in rediscovering him, but we'll wait and see whether that interest eventually repositions him within the artistic canon.” Certainly Hepburn hopes that the trailblazer from Fife will be included in forthcoming shows of post-war British art.

So how does a provincial working class boy in class-ridden Britain come to join the art world elite? Hepburn responds with a revealing anecdote, in which an early teacher held a contest to draw her handbag. Gear won and was awarded a coin from in the bag. “That,” says the curator, “was a taste of art as a successful and exciting thing”.

If it spurred him on to art school, and a new life in Edinburgh, there is still no accounting for Gear’s rampant enthusiasm for only the most modern painting. “He was collecting art magazines,” says Hepburn, “And his friends all recognised that he was the one out there looking at modernism and modern art”.

An abstract painting inspired by landscape
William Gear, Landscape Composition, 1951© Copyright the Artist's Estate. Image Towner, Eastbourne
By all accounts, Gear’s experience of WWII was a pleasant one. He found time to put on shows of work by himself and fellow officers in Siena, Florence and Tel Aviv. In the first months of peace he looked after artwork looted by the Nazis as a “monuments man”. Then following demobilization in 1947 the energetic painter moved to Paris where he stayed for three and a half years.

By the time he returned, says Hepburn, “He'd trained under Léger. He'd seen all these exhibitions of European abstraction and he brought all of that knowledge with him back to England in 1950.”

There was only one hitch. Great Britain didn't share his appetites. “It’s absolutely true that between the wars in the UK, the taste for abstraction receded,” says Hepburn. “It was viewed with a certain distrust as a European thing, so it was certainly very late hitting British shores from the 1930s onwards.”

Abstract painting
William Gear, Composition Printanier, 1950© Copyright the Artist's Estate. Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Laing Art Gallery
Yet as abstract painters go, Gear offers a gentle introduction to the pure play of colour and form. “As he travelled through the decades of his work, you see him fluctuate in and out of abstraction,” says Hepburn.

“You start seeing he's interested in people, he's interested in landscape, he's interested in the natural world, and he never felt himself to be a pure abstract artist.”

Despite it all, Gear struggled to make a living. Before taking up the job at Towner, the pioneer of abstract art was broke. It’s a sad reminder that, as Hepburn admits, “Sometimes abstract art can be harder to get into, harder to understand. I think sometimes people want, quite naturally, to understand the work and are maybe not so comfortable in seeing drawing purely for its aesthetic experience”.

But the forgetting of William Gear has as much to do with personality as public taste. “He was quite an isolated artist in many respects” says Hepburn, who thinks Gear’s European experience, “set him apart from many of his contemporaries”. The Scottish painter was neither networker nor self-promoter. 

Abstract painting inspired by landscape
William Gear, Red Landscape, 1965© Copyright the Artist's Estate. Image courtesy of The Ingram Collection
He may have been reserved towards the British art establishment, but his isolation in a coastal resort didn’t prevent him building the reputation of the Towner Gallery to the point where, as visitors to this show will soon learn, the Observer named it: “the most go-ahead municipal gallery of its size in the country”.

Was Gear looking ahead? It is more likely he was still looking abroad. It will be interesting to see how, following his rediscovery, art historians assimilate this anomalous foreign body.
  •  William Gear - The painter that Britain forgot is at Towner Eastbourne until September 27 2015. Admission £7 (£6). Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday.

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