Frank Avray Wilson: Artist who was one of the UK’s first abstract expressionist painters

The strongly coloured paintings of Frank Avray Wilson partook of the gesturally assertive and spontaneous painterly styles of 1950s “Tachism”, informalism and abstract expressionism. At the same time, Avray Wilson’s scientific background – he read biology at Cambridge during the mid 1930s – instilled an aesthetic necessity for structure and for what he called “vitalist” form. His philosophical interests went much further than following the pre-war tendency to link art and science, seeking and insisting on a transcendentalism to counter the atheist or materialist credo of the post-war existential age.

As a result, Avray Wilson’s mysterious and ambivalent compositions, while carrying indistinct and residual motifs derived from nature – a figure, a landscape or a tilted still-life tabletop – also conveyed what the critic Cathy Courtney described in 1995 as “something sensed but not fully seen”.

Born in Mauritius in 1914 of Anglo-Irish and French descent, Avray Wilson spent his early childhood on the Indian Ocean island before attending Brighton College and St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1953, as a member of the progressive Free Painters Group, Avray Wilson met the like-minded tachist-influenced painter Denis Bowen with whom he participated in the landmark “Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract” exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1957 and with whom he founded the New Vision Centre Gallery, in Marble Arch, in 1956. For the next decade this avant garde, subterranean gallery promoted both hard-edge, lyrical and expressive forms of abstraction. Avray Wilson’s need to balance free and explosive impulses with geometry and structure contrasted with Bowen’s wilder informalism and found some kinship with the abstraction lyrique wing of contemporary continental painting. He met or exhibited with such leading figures as Hans Hartung, Alfred Manessier and Georges Mathieu in Paris during the early 1950s.

Avray Wilson’s superficially abstract compositions were informed by the early Mauritius years and by biology studies at Cambridge; the flora and wildlife of the tropical island, for example, and the interest in the colours and facetted planes of crystals and minerals or of molecular structures found expression in the deep, richly evocative shapes and red, turquoise or dark blue colours of pictures like Convergence (1951), Passage and Vital Geometry (1953) or Untitled 1957, the latter perhaps evoking through thick impastoed slabs of palette-knifed pigment a standing figure or a laden tabletop. Later in the decade, Avray Wilson shared with fellow Redfern Gallery painters, like the Cornish-based Bryan Wynter, a rage for red, a passing mini-fashion that yielded eye-catching, block-like compositions encapsulated in black like Untitled 1955, Thrusting Reds (1957) or Red Square (1958). The widespread influence of the recently deceased Nicolas de Stael, who had exhibited to acclaim at the Matthieson Gallery, London in 1952, was apparent.

True to his disciplined scientific background, Avray Wilson sought definition and clarification of his changing artistic aims. Like many seekers Avray Wilson was retiring and, although widely exhibited internationally during the 1950s, largely withdrew from exhibiting after the mid 1970s. Only in 1995, after a 20-year hiatus, did Avray Wilson hold a major solo exhibition – a kind of comeback – at the Redfern Gallery. By that time the artistic importance of the 1950s was beginning to be reassessed and with it Avray Wilson’s significant contribution within it.

Avray Wilson also turned his enquiring and self-critical mind to writing: his several books included Art into Life (1958), about the biological implications of vitalist aesthetics; Art as Understanding (1963), Art as Revelation (1981) and Seeing is Believing (1995).

Consistent with Avray Wilson’s methodology was a perfectionism seemingly at odds with the controlled “action” painting of his more exuberantly dripped, smudged and trowelled paint work. He was alert to the need for authenticity, aiming for a quality of genuine spontaneity, albeit one checked by compositional and structural imperatives. Indeed, while living in Bisley, Gloucestershire during the 1960s he destroyed more than 150 pictures deemed not to have hit the mark.

In Bisley he worked on stained glass, and an Avray Wilson stained-glass triptych was installed in a church on Lord Roborough’s estate near Plymouth. The deep, illuminated colours of stained glass fulfilled a sacred role and met both with Avray Wilson’s transcendental vision and with his striving for a pictorial expression within the parameters of an architectural setting. Such an outcome fulfilled an aesthetic inspired early on by a visit to Matisse’s studio in Nice, to where Avray Wilson’s parents had retired during the 1930s.

Peter Davies

Frank Avray Wilson, painter: born Vacoas, Mauritius 1914; married 1936 (one son, deceased, one daughter); died 1 January 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all