William Gear: researching an important figure in the history of abstraction

William Gear was a post-war pioneer of abstraction.

He became an RBSA member in 1966, and his involvement in the RBSA and impact upon the Society’s direction has inspired them to hold an exhibition to celebrate his work.

Colour and Form: William Gear (1915-1997) opens in November.

A key question is why he was overlooked in Britain during his lifetime. His style was heavily influenced by working internationally and in Paris as part of the CoBra movement (1948-1951).

He did not use ‘English’ values in his painting, such as figures or landscape fused with the modern, which were being used in other movements of the time like Realism and the St Ives Abstract Expressionists.

Gear’s work was purely abstract in composition. This caused controversy when Gear won a prize at ‘The Festival of Britain’ (1951), as the Art Council was using public money to give out prizes. Audiences could not understand why his work was considered of value.

Rising popularity

Recently, Gear has become more recognised. He was Head of Fine Art at Birmingham College from 1964 until 1975, and was also a curator at Eastbourne Art Gallery (1958-1964).

Both Eastbourne and Edinburgh art galleries created an exhibition celebrating a hundred years since his birth.

‘William Gear: The Painter that Britain Forgot’ is testament to his recent popularity.

But Gear has been overlooked through scholarly history, meaning there is not much research about him. Most of the writing is biographical.

Gear at the RBSA

The RBSA Archive holds important documents on the acquisition of the painting, Caged Yellow, (1996, Acrylic and Ink, RBSA) which William Gear donated as his diploma work when he became a member.

There is also a past exhibition catalogue of a William Gear retrospective, held at the old RBSA Gallery in 1976.

Photographs of the exhibition showed William Gear adjusting the works on the wall.

(c) David Gear; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

My placement at the RBSA Gallery was part of my Professional Practices Module at the University of Birmingham, while studying for my Masters in Curating and the History of Art.

It allowed me try new forms of research, such as speaking to the curator Brendan Flynn about his own personal experiences of meeting William Gear.

I also gained insights into the running of the RBSA Gallery. The Gallery is not just focused on selling artwork – it aims to support artists and encourage engagement with the visual arts in many ways.

This was the case when William Gear was a member, although there was less acceptance of abstract art within the Society at the time.

By Chloe Walker

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