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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.