AS a major retrospective of William Gear’s work opens, art critic Andrew Lambirth explores the influences that made the ‘forgotten’ Scots artist
William Gear grew up in East Wemyss, and always remembered the beach where the spoil from the mine was regularly tipped, the caves in the low red cliffs and the ruins of Macduff Castle on the cliff-top.
There was also a copse of trees, which towered over the small boy as he made his way to school. Trees were to be a fundamental part of his visual memory and imaginings ever after.
But the real giants of his young world were the twin pitheads of the Michael Colliery where his father Porteous worked. Porteous had two leisure-time interests: gardening and photography, both suggestive of artistic inclinations. Although he was proud of the beautiful prize-winning flowers he grew, he was altogether more experimental in his photography, taking shots down the mine of the coal face. This was not just Box Brownie recreational snaps, this was serious innovative photography, with Porteous igniting magnesium strips to light his underground shots.
As a boy aged 10 at the village school Gear first discovered a degree of artistic ability when the schoolmistress put her handbag on the table, set the class to drawing it and offered a shilling for the best attempt. Gear won. Yet he was not particularly interested in art to begin with, being more intrigued by mechanics, practical science and astronomy. (The gridded links of his paintings sometimes recall star charts.) Gear also recalled making things as a boy: “You make a scooter or you make fishing rods or make ‘creels’ to catch fish.”
Later, at High School (Buckhaven Academy), he was taught by a watercolourist called Bennet, who died and was replaced by Bob Morris, a bright young master who had studied at Edinburgh College of Art, been to Paris and was a friend of William George Gillies and his group. He recognised Gear’s burgeoning talent, lent him books on Cézanne and modern art and encouraged him to go to art school. Perhaps surprisingly his parents were in favour, and with the benefit of various grants from Fife Education Authority and the Miners’ Welfare Society, Gear managed to afford it without being a drain on his family.
The visual effect was not dissimilar to a plane tree shedding its bark in a range of coloured oil pigments”
While at Edinburgh College of Art he was also awarded modest travel grants to get him to London to see exhibitions. (Revealingly, he remembered seeing an exhibition by Léger in London in these early years.) All in all, Gear felt himself to have been very lucky in his education. The nearest local art gallery was in Kirkcaldy, which had a fine collection of Scottish paintings, by William McTaggart Senior and SJ Peploe in particular. The gallery opened in 1925, and Gear’s mother Janet took him to visit. Peploe made quite an impression on young Gear, who remembered him as the first painter he was really aware of, particularly a group of 12 colourful still lifes. But even more remarkable was a big loan exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh of work by Edvard Munch in 1931 or 1932. And Gear also remembered seeing the work of Klee, Braque and Dufy, laying the groundwork for his lifelong interest in and admiration for the modern Europeans.
The College of Art subscribed to all the latest art magazines from Paris, and there was a good library, so that during his student years it can be said that Gear acquired a good theoretical knowledge of modern and contemporary art. He always considered Scottish art education to be a great deal more liberal and adventurous than anything on offer in London. While he was at college, the landlady of Gear’s shared lodgings had an odd habit of repainting the stairs more often than was strictly necessary, each time in a different colour.
Gear’s elder son David recounts the story: “Heavy student boot traffic soon produced an interesting mottled pattern, as paint layers were unevenly chipped and worn into blotches and patches. The visual effect was not dissimilar to a plane tree shedding its bark in a range of coloured oil pigments…” Quite possibly, as David Gear suggests, this was an influence on his father’s later work.
Already Gear was experimenting with his own style and trying out visual ideas which didn’t fit the college syllabus. Painting in his digs he would exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy or the Society of Scottish Artists whenever he had the chance, or with the other more experimental students. Margaret Mellis late in life told Lynne Green that the tutors at Edinburgh did not encourage their students to become too radical: “Gear was almost alone amongst his peers in pursuing his own work to the point of pure abstraction. It was he who talked enthusiastically to fellow students about developments in Paris and elsewhere in Europe.”
In due course, he won a postgraduate scholarship, and one of its conditions was taking the History of Art class at the university with Professor David Talbot Rice, whose great speciality was Byzantine art: “I spent a whole term with black and white glass slides of mosaics in Monreale and Dafni and it got a bit tedious after a while…”
Later, travelling to Ravenna, he described the shock of seeing these previously black and white images literally “bouncing with colour”. He was also struck by the verticality of the mosaics. Years later, when Gear was enjoying one of many exhibitions in Edinburgh, Talbot Rice came to see it. He sought out Gear and said: “It is nice to think that one has an influence.”
• William Gear: The Painter That Britain Forgot is at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, from 24 October, www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk. This is an extract from William Gear by Andrew Lambirth, published by Sansom, £40, www.sansomandcompany.co.uk