Who Was Gillian Ayres?

Gillian Ayres is an English artist, known for large, brightly painted abstract paintings and prints. Being an abstract painter means you don’t care about artworks looking like real things, for example people or buildings, but you care about shapes, colors, and emotions. She is best known for abstract paintings and prints made with vivid colors, earning her a Turner Prize nomination. Someone asked once what her artwork was about, and she just listed random things like ice cream, cakes, seaweed, shells and hats.

Ayres’s first solo exhibition was in 1956 at London’s Gallery One, run by Victor Musgrave.

Gillian ayres was influenced by north American artists like Jackson Pollock, he painted giant dripping paintings. Much like Pollock, Ayres worked on her paintings while the canvas was flat on the floor. She was also inspired by Henri Matisse, who used big bright paper to make his collaged artwork.

Gillian Ayres was the only female artist included in the groundbreaking Situation Show at the RBA Gallery in 1960, and she would later be the first woman in Britain to lead a painting department in an art school. After her education, the painter taught painting at Bath Art College, in Corsham, St Martins School of Art, in London, and the Winchester School of Art. The British Abstract Artist taught for a considerable period of time herself, first at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, then later at Saint Martins in London, and Winchester School of Art, where she was Head of Painting.

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From 1946, when Gillian Ayres began studying at Camberwell School of Art aged only 16, she built a career which would see her in the vanguard of her generation’s British art, along with other leading figures of abstraction, such as Howard Hodgkin, Robyn Denny and Adrian Heath. Born in 1930, Gillian Ayres rose to fame within the London art scene in the late 1950s and 60s, exhibiting first in Redfern Gallery, and later at Kasmin Gallery.

When Gillian Ayres moved to North Wales, she started to use oil paint again rather than acrylic paint to make her artwork. Oil paint is really thick and sometimes she would use the paint in a way so it would be inches thick. During her stay in Wales her artwork became bolder and more joyful. She wanted people to be happy when they looked at her art and the world around them.

Gillian Ayres did not like the meetings with other artists, and was far happier working directly with artists, developing exhibitions, and working collaboratively with other artists, for example, in India (where she spent time as an official for the British Council) and the British School at Rome. The skies had dipped above their home, with its crazy gardens and swiftly flowing streams, and it was time to pop some champagne, poured by their kindly son, Sam, also in charge of the two recent Ayres retrospectives, one on her paintings from the Wales period in Cardiffs National Gallery, and one on more broad-ranging accounts of her work, in Peking, both held in Beijing, in 2017-18.

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Back in London, a British Abstract Artist spent time cycling through Barnes until the opening of an interim school for children aged between five and 18 at the air raid shelter next door. She discovered Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s works in books while she was still in school, and has not stopped looking ever since.

She often spends more time staring at an unfinished piece, to decide how shapes and spaces should be organized, than painting it. In an interview three years ago, The AskART database currently holds 191 auction lots by Gillian Ayres (of these, 154 have sold in auctions, with zero coming to auction). Several one-woman shows by Gillian Ayre have toured institutions throughout the United Kingdom, with AIA Gallery, Soho, working with institutions and museums including the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings (2010), National Museum of Wales, Wales (2017) and the CAFA Art Museum, Beijing (2017) to introduce Ayres work to wider audiences with large exhibitions of her paintings, drawings, and prints. A student of the Taschist Style, the non-geometric abstraction that developed in Europe after World War II, she was inspired by American Abstract Expressionist Art, painting lyrical, gestural, contrasting the rigid forms of her contemporaries.

It is a technique that Ayres shares with earlier, more classically trained artists like John Martin (1789-1854), another important painter in the collection. It is natural this would have been of interest to British Abstract Artists.

The implicitly mysterious nature of Ayress work highlights the way that her aim is not to be read narratively, nor does she invite any such interpretation. At a time of life when people are seeking clarity–whether it is an ability to plan ahead, to make sense of the unfolding events, or to create order from the chaos resulting from a pandemic–Ayres work Papua is a reminder to take a step back and find our own perspectives on life. Ayres was made an Honorary Doctor of English Literature by London University in 1994.

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Ayres won awards including:

  • The Japan International Art Promotion Association Award in 1963
  • The Arts Council of Great Britain Bursary in 1975
  • The Arts Council of Great Britain Purchase Award in 1979
  • The Second Prize, John Moores Biennale, Liverpool in 1982
  • The Blackstone Prize, Royal Academy of Arts in 1988-1990
  • The Charles Wollaston, Award, Royal Academy of Arts in 1989
  • Prize Winner, Gold Medal, Seventh Triennale – India, British Council 1991

Gillian Ayres CBE RA (3 February 1930 – 11 April 2018) was an English painter. She is best known for abstract painting and printmaking using successful colours, which earned her a Turner Prize nomination.

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