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A tribute to Gillian Ayres (1930–2018)

18 April 2018

Gillian Ayres has died at the age of 88 after a long and vibrant career as one of Britain’s leading abstract painters. From 1946, when Ayres began studying at Camberwell School of Art at just 16 years of age, she carved out a career that would put her at the forefront of her generation in British art alongside other distinguished figures in the field of abstraction such Howard Hodgkin, Robyn Denny and Adrian Heath.

Ayres was born in London in 1930. She battled her way through the realist teachings of the Euston Road School, who dominated Camberwell’s staff during the late 1940s, and focused her attentions on the teachings of Victor Pasmore – himself at this time going through the transition from realism to abstraction. It was also at Camberwell that Ayres met fellow artist Henry Mundy, who became her husband in 1951. Although Ayres and Mundy divorced in 1976, the pair lived apart only briefly and spent the majority of their lives together.

She would come to be known for her large, bold, expressive canvases, but the early moment of recognition for Ayres came with the commission of a dining hall mural for South Hampstead High School in 1957. The mural consists of four panels, each over two metres high and the largest over three metres wide. Placing the wooden boards on the floor, Ayres dripped and poured paint thinned with turpentine across the their surfaces. This method of working has often led to comparisons with the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock – a comparison Ayres was not fond of. The resulting work, however, is a painting of incredible energy. Although the work did not find favour with the conservative school committee of the time, it did attract the attention of critic Lawrence Alloway. As a result, Alloway invited Ayres to exhibit in ‘Situation’ at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1960, where she showed three paintings: Cumuli, Trace and Muster. Works by some 18 artists were shown in ‘Situation’, an exhibition still revered today by art historians, and Ayres was the only woman in the group.

Gillian Ayres at home on the Cornwall/North Devon border, 2009.

Gillian Ayres at home on the Cornwall/North Devon border, 2009. Photo: Mike Hoban

Her work went through numerous transitions in style, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, in part due to her commitments to teaching, which left Ayres little time to focus on her own work. Ayres taught at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham (1959–66), Saint Martin’s School of Art (1966–78), and as Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art (1978–81). The pressures of almost full-time teaching took its toll and following a bout of severe illness Ayres decided in 1981 to give up teaching and move with her younger son, artist Sam Mundy, to an old rectory in north Wales in the village of Llaniestyn on the Llyn Peninsula.

It was the ensuing decade spent in north Wales, as well as Ayres’s regular visits to the region in the 1950s, which provided the inspiration for her retrospective exhibition held at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales in 2017. The times I spent interviewing Gillian and meeting her at her house in Cornwall were occasions of immense joy. Champagne would be uncorked and tremendous feasts cooked up by her son, Sam, as the many dogs and cats prattled around us – once even scampering across a folio of works on paper. She talked of Wales and her time there with such fondness that the country’s significance in her work and life was clear from the outset. At the rectory she would pin unstretched canvases directly to the wall and use a ladder to reach the highest points. The large scale of the works produced at this time allows viewer a direct encounter with the surface of the paintings, so that you are enveloped by colour and gain a powerful experience of texture and brushwork.

As well as a newfound freedom in her work, there was freedom in Ayres’s lifestyle in Wales: ‘I was going to grow my own vegetables and produce my own food, but in reality I couldn’t kill things. I thought if I got to the country I’d get tougher, but I didn’t. We did once kill a chicken, but when it came out of the oven I ate bread and cheese, I couldn’t eat it. I couldn’t enjoy them and look them in the eye. We had dozens of chickens and finally peacocks and ducks and guinea fowl. It all went on.’

In 1987, Ayres left Wales and moved to a house called Tall Trees on the north Devon and Cornwall border, where she lived until she died. Her work continued to grow in vibrancy throughout the 1990s and 2000s, although its scale reduced in recent years. Ayres was also prolific in printmaking throughout her career, and recently produced a stunning series of woodcuts on Japanese paper. When discussing how she felt about painting, Ayres often referred to a ‘visual language’ as something separate from verbal language, and which is inherent in us all.

The past year saw Ayres beset by illness, which left her unable to paint, although she always hoped to go back to it. Despite her ill health, 2017 proved to be a golden year for Ayres: she was able to visit her retrospective at National Museum Wales; witness the publication of a major monograph of her work; and see Sam travel to Beijing to oversee the installation of her first exhibition in China, ‘Sailing off the Edge’ at the CAFA Art Museum. It is with deep sadness that we mark the passing of a great artist, whom I will remember fondly for her tremendous sense of humour and huge depths of kindness and generosity. Gillian Ayres is survived by her two sons, Jimmy and Sam Mundy.

Melissa Munro is senior curator of the Derek Williams collection at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

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