Gillian Ayres RA: colour dancing across the canvas

Published 3 September 2018

Mali Morris RA pays tribute to the inspirational life and work of the painter and printmaker Gillian Ayres RA, who passed away earlier this year.

  • From the autumn 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Gillian Ayres began to paint as a schoolgirl and carried on painting her whole life long. She always said it was the best thing in the world, but it can’t have been easy in the early days, the way the world was then. She hit her stride as a young painter in the 1950s, making large-scale abstract works, very radical in the context of postwar Britain and the art of the time. She had already absorbed and understood important lessons in visual art – there was much from Europe and beyond that she was looking at, taking in, being excited by. The first poured and puddled paintings, made on boards laid out on the floor, began as improvisations in response to a commission for a mural, at South Hampstead High School in 1957. This monumental work of 27ft wide, and the smaller paintings that followed, heralded what was to come – expansive, spacious pictorial exploration, increasing richness of colour, sensuous handling, physicality, immersion, a life of painting, a raison d’être.

    Her work evolved over the decades – how it looked, the way it was made – but there is consistency, a full-blown head-over-heels kind of facture that insists on arriving at celebration or gorgeousness, however hard to achieve, however long the pauses must have been in the decision-making process of painting. Her prints are a beautiful counterpoint to the weight and density of the paintings, the woodblocks especially, their sharp colour dancing across the delicate surfaces of wafer-thin Japanese paper.

  • , Gillian Ayres in her studio in North Wales, in 1987

    Gillian Ayres in her studio in North Wales, in 1987

    Courtesy Martin Charles/RIBA Collection.

  • I first met Gillian at the home of the painter John McLean and his wife Jan. When we were looking at John’s new work in an upstairs studio I was struck by how calm and clear she was in her comments, very visual, very precise. Perhaps I’d been expecting a more flamboyant way of discussing painting, knowing the luxuriousness of her touch and palette. Later on, invited to visit her Painting Department at Winchester School of Art, the first one to be run by a woman, I sometimes joined in on group tutorials; I felt lucky to be there, hearing her speak to students about colour and space and ways of seeing, not dogmatically but with depth and seriousness.

    I went to a couple of her parties during the 1970s, when she lived in Barnes. Kasmin, her then dealer, opened the door, dressed in one of those paper boiler suits that forensic teams wear to the scene of the crime. “Very necessary,” he said. “I always get covered in paint whenever I come here.” Sure enough, when I got home, my party skirt was smeared with Prussian blue, which I guessed had come from a kitchen chair that was doubling up as a palette. The table in the kitchen looked like a Dutch still-life, only more so; at the centre of an amazing spread sat a beautiful dish on a high stand, a cornucopia of summer fruits spilling out, cascading all over the place. Too easy to draw comparisons with paintings here – it was more a display of largeness of spirit, a sense of occasion, an invitation to share in pleasure.

  • Gillian Ayres RA, Untitled (Rome Series I)

    Gillian Ayres RA, Untitled (Rome Series I), 1997.

    Oil on canvas. 243.8 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

  • I didn’t see Gillian much after she moved to Wales, then to the borders of Devon and Cornwall, but I kept up with her exhibitions. I heard news from her close friends who were in touch and sometimes visited, the McLeans, and the writer and critic Tim Hilton. She was painting all the time until ill health stopped her, a year ago. Towards the end of March, in London, I bumped into her younger son Sam, an artist himself, who was living with his mother and helping in every way imaginable. He said that in spite of health problems she was excited and cheerful about her exhibition in China.

    In early April, the day after I heard that Gillian had died, I listened to some archive recordings, Artists’ Lives, excellent interviews with Mel Gooding, who knew her well. I must have wanted the illusion of being in her company again, hearing that inimitable voice, the pitch and pace of it, her chuckle. In one of the tapes she is hilarious about housekeeping, or rather the lack of it, and furious about what bureaucracy did to art schools; then she says something wonderful about “the secret inside painting, not to be spoken of too much, to be kept at the back of the mind so that it stays as questioning, as searching, as hope within us”. She was an inspiration, as an artist and as a person, and she will be greatly missed.