William Gear in photographs: a unique record of an artist at work

A major exhibition celebrating William Gear, post-war pioneer of abstraction, opens at the RBSA on November 1. ART BLOG was granted exclusive access to photographs held in a private collection, many of which will be shown at a forthcoming symposium

David Gear built up a fascinating personal archive of photographs of his father, the influential abstract artist William Gear.

The family moved to Birmingham in 1964, when William, known to friends as Bill, took up position as Director of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art and Crafts.

David has vivid memories of his father painting at home, the cricket commentary gently floating from the radio.

‘The studio wasn’t out of bounds,’ David says, ‘and whenever I dropped in he usually had the radio on, a battered 1960s Ferguson.

‘This was tuned to classical music – typically Bach, Brahms, or Beethoven – unless there was a Test Match on. He might pause from what he was doing and make the odd comment or occasionally ask my opinion.’

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

‘He did his oil paintings on the top floor, and it was on the ground floor that he produced works on paper, which constituted something of a break from the slog of producing oils on canvas.

‘He rarely did any preparatory sketches, and in fact there are only two sketches I know of – one from 1938, and another from 1953.’

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

David became interested in photography as a young man, and started photographing his father, first on holiday, then in his studio.

What started as a hobby became a more serious pursuit when David started to realise the significance of capturing a leading abstract artist at work.

WG, Nattersee, Austria, 1966 photo David Gear
William Gear in the Austrian Tyrol. (Photo David Gear)

‘I think the first photo I took of my father working was in 1966, while he was sketching in a meadow in the Austrian Tyrol – it was literally a holiday snap.

‘However, by 1968 I’d become seriously interested in photography, and was doing my own black & white printing in a make-shift darkroom.’

The resulting collection is a fascinating insight into a great artist, overlooked for much of his career but now enjoying something of a renaissance.

David adds, ‘I recall having a ‘vague feeling’ that some day my photos might be useful. I’m quite gratified that I had the foresight to make the record I did, even though it’s a bit patchy – both thematically and chronologically.’

Completing work on Bio-Form, Summer ’76, photo David Gear

David’s photographic record of his father at work has in fact been a hugely valuable asset. Copies are held at the Tate Archive in London, and images have been used in catalogues, the two books published on William Gear, and at the Centenary exhibitions in 2015.

Photographs from his own personal collection will be used to illustrate a talk to be given by David Gear at an RBSA Symposium on William Gear on 12 November, which has been funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and features Dr Jennifer Powell, Senior Curator at Kettle’s Yard.

By Louise Palfreyman

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

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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