Gillian and the Bath Academy of Art
Gillian’s connections with Corsham were significant. It is said she was offered a teaching role by Clifford Ellis for six weeks in 1959, and stayed six years. She arrived as the first wave of artists to teach at Corsham with the Academy – staff like William Scott and Kenneth Armitage and visitors such as Peter Lanyon or Terry Frost - were moving on. Nevertheless, many of these artists were respected friends and colleagues then and thereafter.
She was already married to her fellow painter Henry Mundy, who also taught at Corsham. She worked closely with Howard Hodgkin and Adrian Heath, and Corsham colleagues such as Robyn Denny were to participate in some of the key events that shaped her career.
"She upheld the value of abstract painting, and believed it was the responsibility of the artist to commit fully to the act of making and the potential of sharing art."
I first met her in in 1977-8, as a student volunteer in Cambridge helping with a solo show of her work. She was in the ambiguous position that many of her generation were at that point: artists with a substantial body of work and a high profile, but making art that was challenged by a younger generation as being from a waning tradition of that apparently outmoded practice, abstract painting.
The premise of the 1978 show was that her work was re-inventing that most traditional of media, oil on canvas. This was both literally and symbolically a response to the accusation of being dated. I remember going to collect her work – mostly largeish canvasses around seven or eight feet in length and breadth - to find they had been rolled up and had to be passed through her living room window. This necessitated the inevitable process of unrolling the canvasses in the gallery and watching her decide whether the areas where the still wet paint had adhered, slipped or gained, shall we say, fresh textures, needed repainting or not.
Far from this being haphazard, I realised I was witnessing an artist who lived in the moment, and whose work was about communicating precisely that. Her experience and skill lay in manipulating and taking control of her chosen medium in such a way that spontaneity and immediacy were the very senses that were to be sustained over the long term experience of being with a work of art.
Method and experimentation
From that point, she expanded the scale and brilliance of her work in oil. Often applying paint directly with her hands, a kind of drawing in colour developed. Yet any prolonged study of individual works reveal an extraordinary ability to organize, marshall and layer these marks around a highly sophisticated awareness of composition, space and colour relationships. Some passages reference the devices of her favourite artists – the turning figures, drawn curtains and imaginary landscape settings of Titian and Rubens, or Matisse’s illusions of planes of interior space.
One must mention another crucial Corsham connection – her relationship with the printmaker Jack Shireff. She made work on paper throughout her career, but some of her large carborundum prints made in Wiltshire with Shireff are exemplary of what can be achieved in the medium. Many became ‘one-off’ unique works as Ayres could not resist adding and embellishing. In the later part of her career she also made exquisite woodcuts on paper with a studio in Camberwell, near where she was first an art student. Her works on paper were seen recently in Bath in a vivid exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery.
Her later life and work
Thankfully she was well enough to see the extraordinary gathering at National Museum Wales in 2017 of large scale works from across her career: the early liquidity of paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s, including the restored 1957 murals from South Hampstead High School, looking remarkable in a spacious gallery context; the rich near-pop of the mid 60s and the Monet-like pools of colour of her unjustly neglected work from the 1970s; and the drama of huge gallery spaces given over to the post mid 1970s works.
"The comparison with children’s painting is not as crass as it may at first appear, since that joy and directness of experiencing colour in space is indeed the childlike aspect of her work."
For many this will remain a lasting image of her achievement. Equally, many will remember her company, her conversation, her knowledge and her capacity to live life her own way. Most especially, people around the world will no doubt continue to recall when they first encountered a work by Gillian Ayres and how it spoke to something that is near impossible to put into words.