Art review: William Gear: The Painter That Britain Forgot, Edinburgh

BILLED as Britain’s forgotton artist, Fife-born William Gear always had an international outlook
Interior Nocturne 1950, 
Oil on canvas, 81 x 100cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists EstateInterior Nocturne 1950, 
Oil on canvas, 81 x 100cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists Estate
Interior Nocturne 1950, Oil on canvas, 81 x 100cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists Estate

William Gear (1915-1997): The Painter That Britain Forgot | City Art Centre, Edinburgh | Rating: ****

omehow art has lost its power to shock. It may disgust or repel, but that’s not the same thing as pure, aesthetic shock. Sixty years ago things were different. In 1950, William Gear, subject of a major exhibition at Edinburgh City Art Centre, was at the centre of a huge furore about abstract art. A question was even asked in Parliament about his big, abstract painting Autumn Landscape winning a £500 prize from the Arts Council. It is hard to understand now, but hostility to modern art was deep-seated and visceral. Clearly modern art was foreign, so perhaps the same xenophobia was at work that still powers hostility to Europe. Certainly Gear, like his younger Scottish contemporaries Alan Davie, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull, all pioneers of the new modernism, was international both in his experience and his inspiration.

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Born in Fife, the son of a miner, Gear studied in Edinburgh and then in Paris. When war came, commissioned in the Signals, he served in Palestine and Italy and then, as a major, in Germany at the war’s end. (Back in Fife, local patroness Lady Victoria Wemyss was discombobulated to learn from Gear’s mother that the miner’s son outranked her own.) In Germany he became one of the Monument Men. Typically he widened his brief. He did not just hunt down artworks, he organised exhibitions of modern art – the Nazis’ degenerate art – that he had rescued. In a striking act of reconciliation, both then and later, he also helped several German artists to find their feet again. The subtitle of this show is The Artist Britain Forgot, but in Germany, Gear’s generosity was not forgotten. Nor indeed was he really ever forgotten in Britain. Or at least this show is not a rediscovery. When I first met him in 1980 he did seem to feel a little neglected, but after a retrospective in Edinburgh in 1982, his spirits recovered. His later work had certainly lost some of its early fire. Indeed it is scarcely represented in the exhibition and his reputation remained based on his work of the forties and fifties, but he seemed reconciled to that and thoroughly enjoyed celebrity in his old age. Taken up by the Redfern Gallery in London, his work began to sell. He was bought by the National Gallery of Scotland, too, but typically not from his Edinburgh show, but five years later and more expensively in London.

Spring Landscape 1967, oil on canvas, 183 x 122cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists EstateSpring Landscape 1967, oil on canvas, 183 x 122cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists Estate
Spring Landscape 1967, oil on canvas, 183 x 122cm. Picture: Redfern Gallery, London © Artists Estate

The present exhibition begins with several beautiful essays in Surrealism shown perhaps in the first ever Surrealist show in Scotland in 1939. He also managed to continue to work throughout the war and even to exhibit. The relative tranquillity of his time in Palestine – ironically – he recalled, then a haven of peace, is reflected in a lovely painting of a tree against the sky, but in Italy, a war zone, a painting of an olive grove is altogether darker. A watercolour from 1944, of ruined buildings, but delicate in colour, suggests a link between the fierce, often fragmentary imagery of the abstract paintings that he did after he returned to Paris in 1947 and his experience of the violence and destruction of war. It was this, perhaps coupled with a sense of the need to reconstruct a sense of our shared humanity, that provided common ground with the painters of the CoBrA Group, a loose association of northern artists, based partly in Paris. Gear’s work from these years, however, shows a closer affinity with the less anarchic, abstract painters of the School of Paris. He was on friendly terms with many of them, but Nichols de Stael was a special friend. De Stael’s work often bears a recognisable link to landscape and Gear, too, reckoned that landscape frequently inspired his own work. His controversial Autumn Landscape of 1950, for instance, painted in rural Buckinghamshire, though perfectly non-representational, nevertheless suggests the dappled light, the jagged shapes of leaves and branches and the yellows and golds of autumn. Paul Klee ,whose work Gear saw in Edinburgh while a student, was also a great inspiration. Klee too always kept some kind of poetic link to the actual. With its fierce tangles of black lines framing glowing colours like stained glass, Gear’s best work from the 40s is entirely his own however. Later his imagery softened, but as in November Landscape from 1950, for instance, it also became more fluent. This led in turn to paintings like March Landscape from 1965 with energy flowing through them like a current.

Reproductions flatten pictures, and one thing that is really striking when you see Gear’s actual works is their texture. His son David told me that he used to mix the sweepings from the floor with the paint on his palette to give his work this surface and indeed his paintings are richly physical objects. This is particularly striking in a group of low-toned pictures from the later 1950s. Winter Solstice, just two grey rectangles separated by a narrow line of flaming red, for instance, is almost minimal in imagery, but is also rich in texture. This physicality is a quality that his later work does lack, however. He took to using a straight edge, or perhaps masking tape to create sharp, jagged shapes, but the surface as result is flat and lacking in drama.

Gear was a fine draughtsman and a gifted and inventive print-maker and the works on paper are a particular delight in this show. He also had a short but significant career as a curator at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne before becoming Head of Fine Art at Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts in 1964 where he remained till he retired.

This exhibition is also the occasion for the publication of a biography of the artist by Andrew Lambirth. It is a very useful book and much needed, but it could perhaps have done with a little longer on the hob to boil it down. Though Gear might deserve 400 pages, there is nevertheless too much redundancy here to justify the length. Posterity does not need a full review of the film, The Monument Men, for instance, nor an extended disquisition on El Greco. There is repetition too, but the biographical parts are excellent and full of information. The book is also well illustrated and so will do an excellent job in bringing Gear’s work before a wider public.

• Until 14 February; William Gear by Andrew Lambirth is published by Sansom and Company, price £40