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“Immensely courageous”: a tribute to Gillian Ayres RA

1930-2018

Published 13 April 2018

Friends and colleagues remember the exceptional life and career of the painter Gillian Ayres RA, who passed away on 11 April 2018 aged 88.

  • The pioneering abstract painter Gillian Ayres RA began studying art in earnest at just 16, when she won a place at Camberwell School of Art. Over the course of the six-decade career that followed, she became one of the country’s most celebrated artists, elected a Royal Academician in 1991 and made a CBE in 2011. As an artist, teacher and friend, she had a huge impact on those around her, influencing artists of her own generation and beyond. Here, fellow painter Mali Morris RA, RA Secretary and Chief Executive Charles Saumarez Smith and gallery founder and director Alan Cristea pay tribute.

  • Gillian Ayres RA, Salix

    Gillian Ayres RA , Salix , 1990 - 1991 .

    Diploma Work given by Gillian Ayres RA, accepted 1991.

    Oil on canvas. 1840 x 610 x 36 mm.

  • Mali Morris RA

    Gillian Ayres was inspiring, not just as a painter, but as a person. Her work combines seriousness with a marvellous extravagance, great generosity with toughness, and her complete individuality will be unforgettable. I remember doing the occasional group tutorial with her at Winchester, feeling lucky to be there as she spoke to students about colour and space in painting, with her own kind of passion and conviction. She was painterly, in a big and wonderful way, and we will miss her.

  • She belonged to a generation of abstract painters, but always retained a sense of her own special qualities.

    Charles Saumarez Smith

  • Charles Saumarez Smith, RA Secretary and Chief Executive

    I got to know Gillian Ayres when I became Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts ten years ago. But I have known and admired her work for much longer.

    Ayres was the child of liberal parents and was brought up in Barnes by the river Thames in south-west London. She was inspired to paint by books on Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Monet and by trips to the National Gallery during the war when only a single work was displayed. She went to Camberwell School of Arts after the war, but left to become a chambermaid. It was at Camberwell that she discovered the freedom to paint freely and abstractly with a form of creative abandon in opposition to the tortured precision of her teachers who belonged to the Euston Road School. Distillation, the first of her works in the Tate collection, is dated 1957 and was painted on the floor with a combination of oil and Ripolin household enamel paint, inspired by photographs of Jackson Pollock at work on his drip paintings. “One was into the idea of no composition”, she has said.

    I view Gillian Ayres as belonging to the generation of artists who escaped the gloom of the 1950s professional middle classes by creating visually intense, imaginative canvases full of life and colour and abstract, pictorial vividness. It has been a long life, partly teaching, partly living on the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales and, more recently, on the borderland between Devon and Cornwall. It will not have been not easy as a woman in the very masculine world of the 1960s art school, but she has persevered with a certain dogged obstinacy and a belief in independent creative freedom, producing a body of work which can now be seen as the equal, if not superior, to many of her famous contemporaries.

    I hugely admired Gillian Ayres both as a painter and as a person – warm-hearted, colourful and generous. She belonged to a generation of abstract painters, but always retained a sense of her own special qualities.

  • She was immensely courageous, independent and determined in both her art and her lifestyle.

    Alan Cristea

  • Alan Cristea, gallery founder and director

    As a female abstract artist working in the UK, Gillian Ayres was way ahead of her time and the vast majority of her male counterparts but of course, for her, gender was an irrelevance. She was an artist, pure and simple, and resisted all attempts to be classified as some kind of feminist, artistic beacon for younger generations. Certainly there were comparisons to be made early on with American abstract art but she always pursued her own creative path. She was immensely courageous, independent and determined in both her art and her lifestyle. I worked with her for the last 20 years of her life – I wish it had been longer – and we staged seven exhibitions of her paintings, works on paper and prints during that time. Every one of these shows was a life-enhancing experience since her exuberance and her strength imbued all of us at the gallery and visitors alike. I will treasure the memories of these exhibitions and of our frequent visits to her house and studio on the Devon/Cornwall border where we were always treated to lavish meals, large doses of champagne and riveting anecdotes delivered through clouds of cigarette smoke. She was a joy. I loved her to bits and will miss her enormously.

  • Gillian Ayres was inspiring, not just as a painter, but as a person

    Mali Morris RA

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