William Gear: The Painter that Britain Forgot, City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times     
November 2015

William Gear: The Painter that Britain Forgot 


In the centenary year of his birth, this detailed and carefully curated show of over 100 paintings, prints and drawing – accompanied by a lavish new publication by Andrew Lambirth– does great justice to the Fife-born painter, William Gear. The show’s title suggests that Gear fell into obscurity and it is only now that his work is gaining the recognition it deserves. This is partially true. His work has always been held in high esteem, if not by a wide public, then certainly by students, academics, artists, gallery proprietors and others in the ‘art world’.

Although Gear was born and raised in the coastal mining community of Methil, and trained at Edinburgh College of Art, he spent most of his career in England where he taught and worked as a curator, between 1958 and 1964, at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, which is jointly responsible for organising this show.

At Edinburgh, Gear was one of the generation of students (including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Alan Davie and Margaret Mellis) who came under the tutelage of William Gillies, Johnny Maxwell, William McTaggart and Samuel Peploe.

The show, divided into sections in the capacious upper gallery of the City Art Centre, charts the major developments in Gear’s stylistic development, from representation through to the large painted abstractions and prints that defined the latter part of his career. 

One sequence of work is particularly telling. It consists of a series of paintings and a pen and ink drawing composed during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. (As a Major in the Signals Corps, Gear was one of the original ‘Monuments Men’ whose job it was to record and preserve the post-war cultural heritage of Europe).

An oil painting on board, ‘Palestine Landscape’ (1943) shows a single tree and its forlorn shadow. Despite the apparent warmth of its colours it is stark, desolate and in a style and palette Gear did not revisit. It contains the grains of desert sand, which link it inextricably to the place and mood of its composition. Two other works, both completed in 1944 show the ruins of war. ­ One, ‘CittàDistrutta’, although a composite work, is more conventionally representational – a fixed narrative; the other, ‘Composizione’, has transcended the act of pure record and is almost wholly abstracted. The ruins are no longer stones, mortar, wood, bodies, fire and bodies but a series of shapes, forms and tones which, taken together, suggest rather than represent the scene of pointless destruction.

Before the war, and after his Edinburgh years, Gear had worked in Paris in the studio of the famous Cubist painter Fernand Léger. Such an apprenticeship, at such a high level, has enabled Gear to the combine the solid academicism of his conventional Scottish training with the avant-gardism of the Parisian scene. This allowed him to straddle the gulf between representation and abstraction, embracing the two worlds with ease and conviction.

Later, in the intellectual and social shake-up of post war Europe, Gear became associated with the COBRA group of artists (the acronym is derived from the capital cities of the countries where the major exponents of the movement lived – Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). Thus Gear was one of the elite avant-garde painters (including Asger Jorn and Karel Appel), who used colour, immediacy, abstraction and wild vigour. Thus, Gear was aligned with a European avant-garde, which perhaps accounts for the fact that his work is less well known in his own country than it should be.

Despite his prolific output and his bold, daring and successful attempts to break out of the constraints of the Scottish art world, Gear’s importance has never been fully recognised, or celebrated, until now.

* A companion exhibition, JaggedGeneration: William Gear’s Contemporaries and Influences runs at the City Art Centre, from 24 October 2015 to 7 February 2016.

Until 14 February