Book Review: William Gear by John McEwen

Lund Humphries, 2003, 129pp, £30, ISBN 0-85331-867-0

This is the first major book about Scottish artist William Gear (1915-1997).  He trained at Edinburgh College of Art; worked for a while in Léger’s studio; took part in the War; and spent the best part of three years (1947-1950) living and working in Paris.  He never became what might be called a ‘London artist’ (spending over 30 years of his life from 1964 living in Birmingham) and took many of his influences directly from the post-war scene in Paris and other parts of continental Europe in a way which was denied to many contemporary British artists.  For many of them, overseas influences were received, but in an adulterated or mediated form, whether from brief foreign visits, contact with exiled continental Europeans in the UK, or from exhibitions such as Picasso and Matisse at the V&A at the end of 1945.

Either as a result of this or simply because this is how his mind worked, Gear’s work soon became almost entirely abstract, from about 1948 onwards, but it was a type of abstraction which is sometimes called “lyrical”.  In other words, whilst abstract, the work has a softness and, indeed, beauty which distinguishes it from what might be seen as purer abstraction.  And, whilst it would take a terrific leap of faith to claim convincingly that the works ‘represent’ anything, their titles – often referential to landscapes – do lead the viewer to sense that the picture has its roots in an actual vision of something, rather than a cooler picture of a ‘genuine’ abstract.

20th Century British abstract artists have not always found favour with the various audiences which have been available to them.  In Gear’s case, he has definitely not been taken up by the buying public.  This book tells us that his auction record is £9,000, which is low by any standards.  His work is owned by many public collections, but I imagine not often put on display.  Art historians have glanced at him in passing, but primarily for two reasons.  Firstly because he was one of 5 prize winning artists in the famous 60 painters for 1951 exhibition, which was part of the Festival of Britain.  His abstract work led to an outraged public reaction.  Secondly, his years in Paris in the late 1940’s led him into contact with that loose group of artists called COBRA.  He was probably the only British artist to find himself exhibiting at three of the COBRA shows at the time.  Nevertheless, although interest in COBRA occasionally sputters into life in this country, there has been little serious popular attention paid to it, although for Gear it has, in the right circles, acted as a sort of badge of honour.

If he is to be set amongst the other British artists who particularly followed the abstract path, then he will find himself amongst the later Pasmore, Ben Nicholson (from time to time), Heron, Hilton, Frost and Adrian Heath, to name a few obvious ones.  But such grouping isn’t so helpful.  “Abstract” art is not coherent; there are many different types.  Non-representational is perhaps a better category for assessing those who turned away from the figurative art of their training.  But, again, they did this in all sorts of different ways and for different reasons.  How, for example, should one compare the work of Alan Davie with that of Gear?  He was also Scottish of roughly the same generation (born in 1920); he has largely, but not entirely, painted in a non-representational style, but their work cannot meaningfully be compared.  It might in fact, be more relevant to assess Gear against post-War continental European contemporaries.

This book – and others like it which border on hagiography – is simply a starting point for someone else to write a substantive work of synthesis.  It has no intellectual rigour of its own, but is useful as a sort of elaborate catalogue.  Knowing that this is the work which Gear produced, laid out in an helpful chronological way, doesn’t get the task facing the analyst of 20th Century British Art very far.  It is a building block which would have to have the prejudices chipped out of it before it could be re-used.  Monographs by those wishing to champion particular artists can only go so far; the hard work starts where they leave off.