William Gear: Towner, Eastbourne

A recent BBC Four documentary relived the horror of early rock’n’roll. Middle America could tolerate Elvis on their TV screens – but only from the waist up. The camera zoomed in on his shoulders, lest his gently gyrating midriff send the youth of America plummeting into sexual anarchy, thus ending civilization as we knew it.

It’s tough for an 80s kid like me to even imagine the cobwebby conservatism of the 50s, where City bankers still wore top hats and Britain still had colonies. Yet the winds of change were undoubtedly blowing. Rock’n’roll was tearing up the rule book, while its counterpart in painting, abstract expressionism, was banging on the doors of the art establishment.

In the UK, the Royal Academy had steadfastly barred its doors to abstraction. Alfred Munnings mocked Picasso in an infamous 1949 speech – ‘if you paint a tree, for God’s sake make it look like a tree!’ The outlook remained bleak in the ensuing years. In 1960, John Hoyland’s RA diploma show was removed by order of Academician Sir Charles Wheeler for the sin of abstraction. Yet 1960 would also be the year a small concession was made – for the first time ever an abstract piece was accepted into the Summer Exhibition. And the artist who finally broke this taboo? William Gear.

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For some reason I can’t shake the mental image of William Gear metaphorically – and perhaps literally – banging his head against a wall in frustration in the late 50s. He was on a mission to share abstraction with the world, but met with conservatism at every turn. In 1958 he had been appointed curator of Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery whose collecting policy had, until then, comprised mainly inoffensive paintings of local scenery. He wanted to spend the council’s money on creating a forward-thinking collection of British abstract and semi-abstract work that would put Eastbourne on the art map forever, but this was not going to be easy.

In their current exhibition, ‘A Radical View’, Towner Gallery reflects on this exciting period in their history, displaying a selection of works William Gear bought on their behalf. The show forms a companion piece to a larger Gear retrospective upstairs, but it’s a great starting point for contextualising this artist and the struggle he faced.

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The display opens with Harold Mockford’s large canvas ‘Eastbourne’, which Gear called a ‘work of genius’ and promptly purchased for the town. To our modern eyes it may be a largely inoffensive abstracted view – but the accompanying series of newspaper clippings show that it garnered a reaction roughly the 1950s equivalent of Tracey Emin’s bed. Its purchase caused fiery backlash from the townsfolk. ‘Any artist with anything about him at all could do that in two hours’, raged a councillor.

Wandering round the show, I can see that this councillor should in fact have been kissing William Gear’s boots. He applied for, and won, a Gulbenkian grant to enable him to buy a shed load of cutting edge work for the town, establishing in his six year tenure as curator a unique collection of British abstraction – not to mention bagging the finest Edward Burra picture I’ve ever seen.

This new wave of artists, in the view of one early 60s visitor to Towner, were ‘the teddy boys of the art world’ – come to destroy the established pre-war world order. The onlooker in question meant this as a criticism – but with hindsight it looks very much like a compliment. Gear and his contemporaries shook the traditionalists by their lapels and urged them to see their world in a different way. Now Eastbourne owns their valuable legacy.

Upstairs, my appetite whetted, I visit the Towner Gallery’s new retrospective of William Gear’s work. It is a bold attempt to rediscover an artist whose name and work has undeservingly slipped from the history of contemporary art.

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Born in a poor Scottish mining village, Gear travelled Europe extensively in the 30s and 40s. During his military service he was a so-called ‘Monuments Man’, protecting cultural treasures in Berlin, before engaging with the French avant-garde and studying with Cubist painter Fernand Leger.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and emphasizes several starkly different periods in the painter’s career. The early work, from time spent in Europe, references cubism and surrealism – then, in the second room, we encounter Gear’s first mature style, a kind of intimate, Orphic version of abstract expressionism. These small pieces, many in gouache and oil pastel, display a deft confidence allied to a gentle, almost poetic sense of colour.

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By the late 40s, Gear has moved on from the small scale works, hitting his stride with larger oil paintings. As I look at these pictures, I feel the verve and excitement of Gear as this point in his career, as he breaks into a truly mature style and luxuriates in the pleasure of his materials. Perhaps his growing reputation feeds into this sense of optimism. I scribble down notes in my book as I look at these pictures, and record my dominant response as a kind of thrilled envy. As a some-time artist myself, I’d love to feel what Gear was feeling – it’s all any of us could ever hope to dream of.

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In 1949 Gear was one of only two British artists invited to participate in the groundbreaking COBRA show of abstract artists at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and, by 1951, he was established as a major player in the contemporary art scene – evidenced by his inclusion in ‘Sixty Paintings for ‘51’, an expo of art assembled for the Festival of Britain. Yet his contribution, ‘Autumn Landscape’ caused controversy in the press when the Art Council purchased it for £500. The tide was turning for Gear. The next room in the exhibition shows another marked change in style. The spontaneous, calligraphic energy has ebbed, replaced now with a new, austere abstraction in which slabs of colour sit tombstone-heavy. I love these pictures but I certainly can no longer envy the mood of the man who painted them. The artist has fallen on hard times. By 1958 poor Gear is penniless and working as a relief postman. These pictures seem to echo the changes in American abstraction – from the frenzy of Pollock in the 40s to the pensive, aching Colour Field 50s abstracts of Rothko – whilst remaining intensely personal, and achingly sad.

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Later in 1958, Gear was successful in his application for the post of curator at Towner. This represented a sea change in his fortunes – financial security, plus studio and domestic accommodation thrown in. The later work in this show reflects the change in mood this newfound acceptance brings, as vibrant colour and expressionist surfaces shimmer and glow on large canvases. If the exhibition is the story of a life lived through paint, it feels like there was a happy ending. The late pictures are vibrant and painterly, the excitement has returned. Yet somehow Gear is now forgotten, his name rarely mentioned in histories of British art.

I sit in the last room and flick through the visitors book. His works may have been shocking to 1950s gallery-goers outside London, but times have changed. The current Towner audience seem most content with abstraction. All the comments are positive. Even those that confess to struggle with interpreting Gear’s subject matter seem to have found a way to enjoy it. ‘I find abstract art difficult to understand’ writes one such person ‘until I give the works my own titles. “Duck trapped in Fruit Salad”, or “Club Sandwich as seen by a Fly.”

Gear himself once wrote that his work could never be considered entirely non-representational, so maybe he’d have enjoyed this fun, freewheeling take on his work. He certainly would have preferred it to the sniffy attitudes of those 50s councillors.

Like most art fans, part of me loves the romantic myth of the starving artist, unrecognized in life but feted after death. Just imagine if the penniless Van Gogh had known the sums for which his work would one day sell, and all the scholarly attention destined one day to be poured over every stroke of his brush. Yet it cuts both ways. Sometimes pioneering, trailblazing names well known in their day get forgotten, and often for the simplest of reasons. William Gear was a private man, not given to self-publicity, and reluctant to ally himself to a movement. He doesn’t fit the broad strokes of an overview of British art, so perhaps it was just easier to leave him out altogether. I hope this show will help to change things.

A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958-64 is at Towner, Eastbourne until 31 Aug  / William Gear 1915-97: The Painter That Britain Forgot runs until 27 Sept. Admission £7

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