William Gear: the Birmingham years

Our latest article in a series on the influential abstract artist William Gear looks at his years in Birmingham and his legacy to the city and the art world…

William Gear came to the Midlands in 1964 to take up position as Director of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art and Crafts.

Despite Birmingham’s size, the main Museum and Art Gallery, the Barber Institute, and the RBSA had very little modern art in their collections. There was also an absence of commercial galleries at the time.

Gear, ever the champion of Modernism, was quick to address this lack of provision for contemporary art.

In a speech marking the 150th anniversary of the RBSA he said: ‘I urge you as a Society to open your doors more widely. There is a dearth of exhibition facilities in Birmingham. It really is quite incredible to me that there is no functioning commercial gallery in a city this size.’

According to John McEwen, ‘By the following February, Gear was opening the largest and most diverse exhibition for many years at the RBSA’s New Street galleries.

‘Young artists and old showed paintings and sculptures in a wide variety of styles – traditional landscapes, portraits and still lifes, but also abstracts and pop art. Gear’s Structure Orange No. 1 and Structure Orange No. 2 dominated the main hall.’

Gear had been heavily involved in European Modernism on the Continent. He worked with Fernand Legér whilst living in Paris and contributed to key CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam axis) exhibitions.

William Gear in studio, 13 Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris 1949

William Gear in studio, 13 Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris 1949

Gear presided over the introduction of the new Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD) at the Birmingham College of Art and Crafts, encouraging notable artists to deliver talks to students, including Lynn Chadwick, Merlyn Evans and Ceri Richards.

The Coldstream Report into Art Education of 1960 reflected new ideas which had been circulating since the early 1950s. Panellists included Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore and Gear’s friend and fellow Scot Alan Davie.

The emphasis on craft and skill-based courses led to a more open-ended approach to the curriculum centred on ideas – a liberal education in art on a personal level, rather than through a rigid syllabus.

DipAD students were taught all the essential skills, and were encouraged by Gear to explore other departments at the college, such as industrial design and textiles.

Studio, Edgbaston, 1973 (photo David Gear) (2)

Studio, Edgbaston, 1973 (photo David Gear)

In an interview with the influential Birmingham curator Tessa Sidey, Gear said: “I used to say to students, ‘Look, while you are here, for God’s sake learn your trade.

‘Get skilled in drawing or painting and know about technique, how to stretch a canvas, or prime a canvas, how to cast something, how to do a lithograph, an etching or screenprint. Learn to do these things, because the chances are that, in due course, it will be useful to know how they are done.’”

During this period, Gear continued to paint and produced some of his largest works, including Broken Yellow (1967).

The family settled into Birmingham life, becoming known for their warmth and hospitality. At home, Gear worked on several canvases at once.

WG completing some works on paper, Edgbaston 1975 (photo David Gear)

William Gear at work in Edgbaston 1975 (photo David Gear)

David recalls: ‘He used to say that the ideas for one painting would end up in the next.

‘Working on paper was a release, in that if he wasn’t happy with one it didn’t matter as he could just screw it up. There wasn’t that option with the oil paintings, where he would have spent hours and hours slogging through the work – it wasn’t that easy.

‘I remember an interviewer once asking him ‘But is it really work?’ and my father replying ‘Yes, it is hard work, and the harder the work, the better the result. The best work results from working through despair and angst.’

Angst came to Birmingham in 1968 after student riots in Paris spread to other cities, students ignited by the notion of rights and protest.

These were turbulent times in education, as many students became politicised and took to the streets or staged occupations of campus buildings on a range of issues.

The huge Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1968 was dispersed by mounted police and many were injured. This hardened attitudes against the government and the “establishment” which included university and college authorities.

Conflict was never something Gear enjoyed. His rows with the purchasing committee back in Eastbourne had made him ill. In Birmingham, he tried to distance himself from the sit-ins and the parades around Margaret Street.

Resolution was eventually reached between the college leadership and teaching staff, but student morale was at rock bottom in the months after the disputes.

By 1970, with the introduction of Traditional Studies and amalgamation with Birmingham Polytechnic, numbers recovered.

Gear supported the merger, because it boosted the budgets both for student numbers and the art and design library.

WG in studio, Edgbaston, 1971, photo David Gear

William Gear in studio, Edgbaston, 1971, photo David Gear

Gear retired in 1975, to concentrate more on his painting, and the RBSA held a retrospective exhibition the following year. This was the largest solo exhibition by an abstract painter of international repute to be held in Birmingham.

The quality of the works illustrated Gear’s unflagging creative energy and desire to experiment. But inevitably British painting had moved on.

A new generation of Birmingham-trained artists like John Walker and John Salt was at the forefront of contemporary painting, and Ikon Gallery was staging exhibitions of performance art, film, and video.

Gear did not succumb to the temptation to follow the fashion; in words of Andrew Lambirth he ‘battened down the hatches, tightened the screws and prepared himself (but principally his art) to weather the storms of old age.’

WG in studio, Edgbaston, 1994

William Gear in his studio, Edgbaston, 1994

Gear contributed enormously to the arts scene and the progress of artists in Birmingham during his career, and the change of direction in the city through the 70s, 80s and into the 90s is testament to his influence.

He became known as a ‘Birmingham artist’ though his son David says ‘he always saw himself as a European artist with Scottish roots.’

By Louise Palfreyman and Brendan Flynn, RBSA art historian

Colour and Form: William Gear (1915-1997) opens on November 1.

A William Gear Symposium will be held on 12 November, funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and featuring Dr Jennifer Powell, Senior Curator at Kettle’s Yard.

A family workshop takes place on 18 November. Karoline Rerrie will show you how to draw, cut, and print abstract designs using block printing techniques. A great introduction for those new to block printing.

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