Sheila Girling: Artist acclaimed for her rich and romantic paintings and collages who enjoyed a long marriage to Anthony Caro

Girling's work was modest and ambitious, authentic and imaginative, but above all true to the sensual delight in paint she had originally discovered as a young girl in her grandfather's studio

Click to follow

Art ran through Sheila Girling's veins. Her grandfather was a well-known Midlands artist, as were her uncle and aunt, while her father's father was a successful London art dealer. Of all his grandchildren her grandfather indicated that she would the one to carry on the family's artistic tradition, and from a young age she displayed a natural aptitude.

One of her earliest memories was visiting his studio and being intoxicated by the smell of oil painting medium. She also remembered him showing her Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson, which her mother felt an unsuitable work to show a young girl. But Girling's recollection was a painterly one, of how the light fell on the recumbent figure.

At school she wanted to become a doctor but her anxious mother was concerned about contamination. So she went off to Birmingham art school at a time when art schools provided a rigorous education in the craft of painting. Although all her family had attended the Slade, Fleetwood Walker, then head of the school, recommended her for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art.

Just after the war the studios were still very empty. But for a young woman from the provinces London, despite the postwar drabness, was an exciting place. At the Academy she won the silver medal for portraiture and Proxime Accesit in the gold medal section for her painting Return of Ulysses. It was there that she met her husband, the sculptor Anthony Caro. One day she found him using her drawing board. So, to make amends, he asked her out to lunch and they started a lively discussion about art, which continued throughout their marriage. She used to joke that their relationship worked because she was a painter, he a sculptor, and they didn't tread on each other's toes.

In 1963 Caro was invited to take over the sculpture department of Bennington College, Vermont, and the family headed for America, where they rented a farmhouse near Kenneth Noland's and Jules Olitski's studios. It was an exciting time; Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons and Clement Greenberg were all frequent visitors. In 1982 Caro founded the Triangle workshops to bring together leading artists from different countries.

It was against this background that Girling grew to maturity as a painter. In America she saw acrylic being used by for the first time and artists such as Jackson Pollock laying their canvases flat on the floor to create a more bodily relationship to the surface. Her own classical training had been in oils but she was also an accomplished watercolourist, painting landscapes on holiday for her own pleasure.

In 1978 she attended a clay workshop in Syracuse, New York and set about painting on clay slabs, mixing colour powder medium into the clay: "The more I worked the more possibilities opened up." Tearing up the coloured lumps, she placed them on the clay slabs. The results led her towards what would become her dominant style, collage.

Girling and Caro worked in the US each summer for 10 years. Much of her time during the 1960s was spent bringing up her two young sons, but the experience of being away from home sparked a looser, more direct approach to her work, working on the floor, covering the canvas in a thick white ground mixed with gel – she once told me that the process was like cooking.

The first layers were put down with a squeegee mop or a broom. Then she raised the canvas and began to arrange the cut pieces, moving them around "like a dressmaker might fiddle with a dress pattern". These were then stuck down with heavy gel, so the whole, she joked, would "rot at the same time".

She was honest about the hit-and-miss element of collage but it gave her a high degree of control. Though her commitment to painting was more than simply formal: there was a sensual and tactile pleasure in the process. She could, she told me, never have been a sculptor. Rich and romantic, her paintings are full not only of chromatic inflexions and lucid arenas of opaque and translucent colour but also of tension. There is a rhythm to her paint that seems to pulsate, throb and swirl like the improvised notes of a jazz saxophonist. Her colours push against each other to establish discords then come together to create moments of lyrical harmony.

Part of a generation of British women artists that has produced more than its fair share of talented abstract painters, the likes of Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow and Bridget Riley, Girling moved in her later career to allow more directly figurative references to infiltrate her work. While it might be argued that her paintings were built out of that ultimate post-modernist symbol, the fragment, her sensibility remained largely untouched by fashion.

She continued to paint her luminous paintings inspired by a love of colour and things perceived in the natural world. Her work was modest and ambitious, authentic and imaginative, but above all true to the sensual delight in paint she had originally discovered as a young girl in her grandfather's studio.

She and Tony Caro were enthusiastic travellers. For many years they maintained studios in England and upstate New York and travelled to India, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. It was while curating her largest museum show at IVAM in Valencia that I got to know her.

They were married for 63 years until his death in 2013, working with boundless energy as a team throughout their careers at their joint studios in Camden Town, she advising him on the colours of his steel sculptures, he critiquing her paintings. Their themed Christmas studio parties and regular lunches at their favourite Greek restaurant were indicative of their warm, inclusive and generous natures.


Sheila May Girling, painter: born Birmingham 1 July 1924; married 1949 Anthony Caro (died 2013; two sons); died 14 February 2015.