Life with a famous artist: David Gear on his father William

David Gear’s earliest memories are of his father painting at his easel. He wasn’t aware that growing up with an artist was anything other than the norm.

His father, in fact, went on to become one of the most important figures in post-war British art.

He was William Gear, a man celebrated more now than he was during his lifetime, when abstraction was often too much for the public, and the establishment, to bear.

‘I just took it for granted that painting was what my father did,’ David says. ‘It didn’t seem unusual or different at the time.’

It was in Eastbourne as a child when David first realised the significance of discussions around the dinner table. The family had moved there so William Gear could take up a post at the Towner Gallery.

'Paysage' July 1950 24x20ins (Dph)
‘Paysage’ July 1950 24 x 20ins Photo © David Gear

Money was tight and a more regular income was required.

‘He and my mother had been selling everything just to keep up with the mortgage, because his art wasn’t bringing in enough. He’d sold his books, and her jewellery, and at one stage had a part-time job as a postman.

‘When he got the job in Eastbourne, he was convinced that the chattering London art set was saying he’d given up, because it was seen as a failure for an artist to take a job.

William Gear in his studio, Towner Art Galley, Eastbourne, 1962
William Gear in his studio, Towner Art Galley, Eastbourne, 1962 Photo © David Gear

‘In fact, he produced some of his best works whilst there. He would comment often on his influences, which were always boyhood memories of East Wemyss, a mining village in Scotland, and the artists he had known, particularly Nicolas De Staël.

‘A letter was framed in our house, and one time I said ‘Who’s that from, Daddy?’ and he said, ‘A man who died.’

‘De Staël committed suicide after his work was dismissed by a critic, and my father was devastated. They were very good friends.’

During his time as curator in Eastbourne, Gear acquired works by major British abstract artists including Edward Burra, Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards.

David remembers: ‘He was always going after new avant-garde pieces for the gallery, but he had to get his choices past a committee, and the conversations around the dinner table usually concerned the battles he was having.

‘My father had a very strong personality. I can safely say that their collection today is largely down to a combination of cajoling, persuading and downright bullying. Someone less tenacious could never have achieved what he did.

William Gear, 'Self Portrait' Ruth Borchard Collection
William Gear, ‘Self-Portrait’ 1953, ink on paper, 55 x 38cm, Courtesy of The Ruth Borchard Collection,

‘You could tell from the discussions he had that he was really committed, not just to his own work, but to promoting the work of others.

‘On one occasion he was so frustrated with the Purchase Committee that he had a rash on his arms. He went to the doctor, who said ‘Ah, Mr Gear, I see that the committee has been getting under your skin.’

The family moved again in 1964 to Birmingham, after the education department wrote a letter asking him if he could recommend anyone as they were expanding art education in the city.

Gear was made Head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art in 1964, when David was just 14.

‘It was a difficult move, because to me Birmingham was ‘somewhere up North’. Plus, my father was further away from the St Ives set: Heron, Frost and Lanyon, though I think he always regarded them as being part of a somewhat ‘local scene’.

‘Having lived around the world, my father saw himself as a European artist with Scottish roots.’

Gear had forged meaningful connections with European Modernism having worked with Fernand Legér, and was ranked alongside his friend De Staël and Dubuffet.

After the war, he settled in Paris, where David was born, and contributed to pivotal CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam axis) exhibitions.

'Yellow Chevron' Sep 1964 48x36ins (Dph)
‘Yellow Chevron’ Sep 1964 48 x 36ins Photo © David Gear

He was shown in New York alongside Jackson Pollock, and continued to exhibit, though less frequently through the 60s and 70s after he fell somewhat out of favour with the critics.

In Birmingham, living in a large house in Edgbaston, Gear found himself once again frustrated by bureaucracy.

‘He had to go to academic board meetings, and although his studio took up most of the top floor of our house and he continued to work, I think he found the business of education quite trying.

‘He said when he retired that it took him about six months to fully unwind and properly get back into his painting.’

'Summer Bonus' Sep 1991 30x20ins (Dph)
‘Summer Bonus’ Sep 1991 30 x 20ins Photo © David Gear

His time in the city meant a great deal to the local arts scene, with purchases made of important works, and many young artists encouraged and mentored through his membership of the RBSA.

Gear achieved much-deserved recognition in later life, attending the opening of the CoBrA Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen after a revival of interest in the movement, and finally achieving election to the Royal Academy in 1995.

He died in Birmingham in 1997, just after returning from Hanover, where he received the Leporello Prize for ‘work for democratic art and artistic freedom.’


On preparations for the RBSA exhibition, David says:  ‘The exhibition came about because 2015 was the centenary of my father’s birth and he had a long association with Birmingham and the RBSA, so we talked about putting on a retrospective.

‘We are aiming for a historical perspective, and are seeking to place my father’s work in the wider context of twentieth century art.

‘The earliest work is 1941 and the latest is 1991, so it’s a good spread of media and styles – there are paintings, oils, works on paper and prints – a real cross-section.’

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

Join us for a celebratory open day on 5 November, 2 – 4pm.

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

By Louise Palfreyman


  1. Hello Louise, I live in East Wemyss in Fife where William Gear grew up. I would like to see greater recognition for his achievement as an artist and for him to have a higher profile in the village ( it would be ideal if we could locate the house in which he lived for example) and in Scotland’s art scene. The local art gallery in Kirkcaldy should in my view have his art on permanent display. To this end I’d be very grateful if you could pass my e mail address to his son David. It’s
    Thank you


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