Issue Number: 105
Gillian Ayres RA in her studio in north Cornwall. Photograph by Eamonn McCabe The studio of Gillian Ayres RA – in a woodman’s cottage – lies hidden in a far-flung corner of Cornwall. The pastoral nature of the scene belies a hive of activity, with massive canvases taking up all available space. Fiona Maddocks meets the painter who shows no sign of easing up as she approaches her 80s.
Finding Gillian Ayres proves difficult. You turn confidently off the gloriously named Atlantic Highway long before Land’s End and then it’s guesswork. The approach is steep, down an unmarked lane winding beneath a canopy of trees. She came to her hideaway on the Devon-Cornwall border twenty years ago, looking for peace and quiet.
So completely did she succeed that even the postman shrugs, denying all knowledge of the famous Royal Academician who produces huge, vibrant canvases from a small white studio adjoining her ancient cottage. When eventually we locate her, it’s obvious we have come to the right place. Her garden, abundantly overgrown in early autumn, is splashed with the very colours that light up her pictures: orange nasturtiums, salmon-pink geraniums, vermilion roses, blue hydrangeas, all planted by Ayres long ago to clash joyfully and noisily. She is not inhibited by conventional good taste, blessed instead with her own virtuosic sense of style.
A small but warmly ample presence, she dresses in black and wears a heavy amber and silver filigree Berber necklace, bought in North Africa. Before suffering a heart attack seven years ago, she loved to travel far afield ‘to Yemen, and Marrakech, just to look and look’. Her fragile health has put a stop to that. Even her visits to London or her walks in the woods near her home have been curtailed. But she still paints, vigorously and daily.
‘It’s all I ever wanted to do, all my life. I can’t live long enough to paint all I want to do. Thirty years ago, I gave up my teaching job at Winchester College of Art to paint. And that’s what I do.’ This remark is said with incisive fervour. Her studio is testament to her passion for work. Some twenty paintings have already gone to London for her forthcoming show at Alan Cristea Gallery, which opens on 3 February to coincide with her 80th birthday.
The same number or more remain stacked against the walls of the simple, double-height space that is her studio, lit by north-facing skylights and a glazed door to the south. Paints and brushes are spread out on the floor. Tall canvases arrive and depart through a narrow slit cut in the wall with a chainsaw when she first arrived. From outside, the long thin doorway would surely mystify a passing stranger.
‘People think I came here for the views,’ she says, giving a quizzical smile that makes her pale-blue eyes sparkle. ‘But, as you can see, I have no views: I don’t paint from nature so I don’t need them. My paintings are about painting, about shape and colour, not telling stories. From my studio I can’t see beyond the trees.’
The horizons are close and bosky, the limits of her garden marked by an old wrought iron gate painted a shocking lime green, beating nature at its own verdant game. Her paintings, likewise, create their own self-contained abstract worlds, limited only by the confines of the canvas. ‘The studio wasn’t purpose built. It used to be the library of the previous owner. I said to his widow, “I’m afraid I’ve buggered up your husband’s library” and she said, “It’s all right dear, you’re both creative”.’
Ayres lives with her son, the painter Sam Mundy – ‘He went away but he’s come back for the moment’ – and with his father Henry Mundy, also a painter, from whom she was divorced 30 years ago. Does she think her ménage odd? ‘Well, I suppose it is, really,’ she says, laughing but not elaborating. ‘We’re good friends and it works.’
Her previous studio was in north Wales, but she started out in London. Born in Barnes, she was the youngest of three children, and educated at Camberwell College of Art in the 1946-50. There she broke the mould and rejected figurative art, setting out on the path of abstraction and colour that has given her such a following. She also showed her mettle when she resigned temporarily from the RA at the time of its controversial ‘Sensation’ exhibition in 1997.
Ayres no longer paints the massive canvases that were her hallmark, but still prefers to work ‘as big as I can manage. I can reach up to 6ft 6in, so that’s what I do. I’ve always done all the stretching and priming myself but now Sam or a local man help me. It’s quite sticky being nearly 80… I’m fussy about paints, and use good oils. But all that really matters is doing it. It’s as simple as that. The bloody stuff has to be done. I never know where I’m going to end up with a picture. By doing it you discover what you’re trying to do. Then you can work out what to call what you have done!’
She accepts that, merely by virtue of her age, she has reached a ‘late period’ in her work. But she regards the changes, the greater openness and freedom, as simply a continuation of her working life. ‘You have spates of doing one kind of thing, and you get very knowing. Then you change direction. One doesn’t want to do easy painting, but to push hard and find out.’
A glossy young dog bounds in, a recent addition to the household. ‘Look, it’s just a puppy... I guess we all know something about life...’ She doesn’t complete her elusive remark, whether pondering her own mortality, or the sense of youthful playfulness so central to her work. ‘As far as being a painter’s concerned, perhaps one has only just begun.’