Obituary: William Gear

Few British painters have played an active role in the modern abstract movement of post-war Europe. William Gear was the most passionate and committed exception. He continued the tradition of the Edinburgh-Paris axis established by J.D. Fergusson, Samuel Peploe and others, spending vital years between 1947 and 1950 living and working in Paris. Significantly, in recent years, he received the greatest acclaim in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

He was born in 1915 in Methil, Fife, into a mining family; the particular landscape of "pitheads, the sea, rocks, castles, trees, storms and poverty" marked his earliest identity with a place and probably remained the most influential to his art. Years later he recalled as a schoolboy visiting the local art gallery in Kirkcaldy and seeing 12 colourful still-lifes by Peploe. Art-history lessons during student years at Edinburgh College of Art, in particular Byzantine classes under David Talbot Rice, also influenced his concern for structure. This had as much to do with the formal language of painting as sheer delight in the medium itself. Gear never missed an opportunity to show people the merits of a well-constructed painting.

On a travelling scholarship in 1937, he chose to study with Fernand Leger, described by Gear as "a keystone for me, seldom abstract, rather a degree of abstraction". The Second World War interrupted these formative years and, by 1940, Gear had joined the Royal Corps of Signals. Dispatched to the Middle East, he still had the discipline to paint - mostly works on paper of damaged landscapes - with exhibitions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Cairo as well as Siena and Florence.

His naturally robust and tenacious temperament was profoundly affected by visiting Bergen-Belsen, and this certainly influenced the later experiments with the black armature. As the British officer in Celle, working for the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Control Commission, he focused on securing the safety of the Berlin Art Collection in Schloss Celle, and organised an important series of modern art exhibitions, including the rejected work of Karl Otto Gotz. Only a few weeks before his death, this service to "democratic art and artistic freedom" was recognised in Hanover by a unique Leporello Award, appropriately instigated by fellow artists and presented by the Lower Saxony government.

Demobbed in 1947, Gear headed for Paris, where he established a one-room studio at 13 Quai des Grands Augustins. This exciting period saw him gravitating towards what he called "the freer, dramatic approach of abstraction lyrique" rather then "the dogmatic hard-edged school of Mondrian and De Stijl". Within a year there were exhibitions at two of the pioneering salons and a first one-man show at the Galerie Arc en Ciel.

At the same time inclusion in Cobra shows in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1949, alongside Constant, Corneille and Appel, underpinned his affiliation to a reinvigorated form of abstract expressionism. He worked at the time in the fluid medium of opaque water-colour, usually on card with pockets of intense colour on a white or neutral ground. While some pieces were purely abstract, others carried their own suggestion of landscape, or even a form of Celtic figuration.

The same year saw an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, alongside Jackson Pollock. The impact of American abstract expressionism however remained a sore subject, which in conversation was usually dismissed with a curt reminder of what he and others were already painting in Europe.

The decision to return to England in 1950 was both personal and practical. Recently married to Charlotte Chertok, and with a baby, he had already secured in 1948 the first of a series of London exhibitions with the Gimpel Fils Gallery. The atmosphere surrounding the Festival of Britain also appeared to offer fresh opportunities.

Notoriously, Gear was awarded one of the Festival of Britain Purchase Prizes for Autumn Landscape, a large oil on canvas which took six difficult months to complete. The event produced written questions and answers in the House of Commons and a tirade of abuse from the national press, not to mention a topic for debate on the radio programme Any Questions. While the episode made him a household name, the longer-term effects were, arguably, more detrimental.

He chose not to live in London or join fellow abstract artists in St Ives, preferring the independence of a village in Kent between 1953 and 1958. This period saw the continued development of large landscape structures, as well as "side-roads" into sculptural subjects and minimalist colour paintings, which openly acknowledged the influence of Nicolas de Stael. These works have still to be properly exhibited. Mau-Mau (1953), for example, painted for the Contemporary Art Society but at the last minute withdrawn from display at the Tate Gallery, has its first London showing in the current golden jubilee exhibition at the Redfern Gallery.

Gear was out of critical favour for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He exhibited more irregularly, despite returning to the use of dark structures broken by selected movements and light-inflected primary colours. While contemporaries questioned his move to Eastbourne as Curator of the Towner Art Gallery (1958-64), Gear's response was to take on the Purchase Committee. He changed the local authority's collection policy from Victorian and local views to securing the foundation of a major collection of post-war British art.

His move to Birmingham came with the appointment as Head of the Faculty of Fine Art, Birmingham College of Art, in 1964, a post held until retirement in 1975, by which time he had become increasingly un- interested in the growing bureaucracy surrounding art education. His support and encouragement to artists living in Birmingham however continued with the purchases made for Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery on behalf of the Friends organisation (1987-94) as well as for his own personal collection. Most recently he instigated the idea of a gallery of modern art in Birmingham.

Fortunately, the last 15 years have also gone some way to reverse the years of neglect. Gear and Stephen Gilbert (also Scottish) were the only British artists included in the major Cobra 1948-51 exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris, in 1982. The Cobra enthusiast Karel van Stuijvenberg has been a prominent patron and, in 1995, Gear took delight in attending the opening of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen, near Amsterdam. He was equally proud of his long overdue election to the Royal Academy in 1995, and in the last years relished working with the fluidity and strong colours of oil stick.

Tessa Sidey

William Gear, painter and teacher: born Methil, Fife 5 August 1915; Curator, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne 1958-64; Head of Department of Fine Art, Birmingham Plytechnic (Birmingham College of Art and Design) 1964-75; RA 1995; married 1949 Charlotte Chertok (died 1988; two sons); died Birmingham 27 February 1997.

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