Abstract artist Gillian Ayres: painting against the tide

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One of Britain’s finest and most original abstract artists, Gillian Ayres has always stood out from the crowd. As she turns 80 Martin Gayford finds her still very much the individualist in life as in art.
By Martin Gayford Published: 10:00AM GMT 28 Jan 2010

Gillian Ayres on the beach near her Devon home Photo: Gautier Deblonde In the 1970s, when Gillian Ayres was a senior lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art in London, other members of staff used to warn the students, 'Don’t listen to her, she’ll make you want to paint.’ Those were the glory days of conceptual art; pigment and brushes were out. But not, obviously, for her. Ayres carried on painting, regardless of passing fashion, making utterly distinctive pictures. This is what she has done for the past 60 years. Ayres is among the most important and original abstract artists this country has ever produced. Though not so well-known by the general public as contemporaries such as Howard Hodgkin, she has had the accolade of a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy and there are no fewer than 14 of her pictures in the Tate Collection, including the wonderful Distillation (1957), among the most powerful and lyrical abstract paintings ever produced by a British artist. Ayres’s fervent supporters include the broadcaster and author Andrew Marr, who recently described her as 'probably the finest abstract painter alive in Britain’. He added, 'Ayres has always been obsessively concerned

she tells me. Several new pictures are in her studio. When we eventually arrive. no writers or anything. jelly moulds. 'I never use something in nature directly. But. after I am picked up at the station by Ayres’s son Jim. In 1962 she made a statement about how she thought of the canvas 'as a whole image and space – an essence – perhaps like the space a sailor of Magellan’s would have felt . she offers a choice of coffee. Visiting her is far from easy. But for the most part her pictures are just themselves. Mrs Beeton’s ice cream and cakes. stepladders. where there was no art world. tins of colour and canvases. an express train to Exeter. 'I just like painting. In her newest works there seem to be. London. Finally we reach a little stone-built farmhouse with smoke coming out of its chimneys: the sort of place that might be inhabited by a character in Beatrix Potter or The Wind in the Willows. here and there. prompted by the Tate. It is a slightly unexpected place to find someone who lived the first halfcentury of her life in suburban Barnes. 'I used to go to a lonely Scottish island in the summer. puddings and marine life-forms did: 'Crivelli. It involves. right on the border between Devon and Cornwall – the stream that separates the counties runs through her garden – she had a rambling old rectory on the Llyn Peninsula in northwest Wales. although Ayres was for many years part of the London art world.’ On Wednesday she reaches her 80th birthday. Though rural landscapes didn’t feature. but God knows what gets into you.’ Before she lived here. living in the sticks. an event that will be celebrated by an exhibition of ebullient new paintings at the Alan Cristea Gallery in Cork Street. whirling chaos held just in check.’ There sometimes seem to be objects floating in Ayres’s exuberant pictures. distinct items such as a moon. an unexpected assortment of art history. on the other side of the house: a cheery muddle of paint-spatter.’ In the 1960s. a starfish. I wouldn’t know what to do without it. and an eclectic assortment they were. things that might be. shells. there is an hour and a half of driving across Devon. On this crisp midwinter day. I don’t find it odd at all to spend one’s life just doing it. when she was still in Barnes. house plants. Then. lichens and seaweeds. past Dartmoor. as it was for some of the artists who gathered around St Ives in Cornwall. she formed the habit of getting away early on: 'I always went to funny lonely places like this. Uccello hats and plumed helmets. say. in front of a glowing log fire. tea – or champagne. or a 15th-century Florentine hat. first. Ayres is sitting in a cosy living-room. a tree or one of those plants. through villages. she once made a list of items that intrigued her as a painter. finials and crockets.’ What’s the point of escaping like this? It isn’t.with painting – the unfolding of a self-contained logic. And before that. a matter of her art being fed by the landscape and the light. tunnel-like lane towards the sea where the wheels spin ominously on the frosted road surface. fragments of a vivacious world made of nothing but paint. and finally down a precipitous.’ Almost the first words she says to me when I visit her at home just after new year are.

and I did tons of teaching. she fell seriously ill with pancreatitis at this point. 'It really is just looking for freedom to paint and get on by yourself. But it’s easy to talk. I just didn’t worry. It’s about what can be done with painting. but I got unhappy in art schools and just resigned one day and cut out to Wales. One should be very upset. truthfully. 'I had had some sales. she began to sell enough to live on. but up to then I always had to work. There was a strain of audacity in the genes. In 1981. But as fate also decreed. it was like that. 'I can’t talk. I thought I’d paint like hell. One cut out from the job.’ As luck would have it. The point of moving to these out-of-the-way places – Wales. It’s got to work. she has taken quite a few risks. I was broke in the 70s. “What are those? Are those carpets pinned up all over the walls?”’ To complicate matters. I’d done a lot of work. and left London.’ That’s more or less how she still feels. since one of her grandmothers had left her farmer husband and lived openly with her lover. but am I managing to?’ she asks at one point. 'Deep down. . 'There was a bit of money over from the house. not a literary one. Ayres has been finding that freedom since she was 13. at 51. I suppose I always thought this was a drag and wanted to paint. really. and I suppose I was – I got a big abscess that had to be lanced – then carried on working. a playboy pal of Edward VII’s. was in a coma for four days and almost died.when the world was flat and he had sailed off the edge. did these bloody great paintings that might not have had any future. a lot of them. and my God! I can just paint every day… All of us.’ she says. She was the youngest of three daughters of a prosperous couple in Barnes.’ In the 1980s she produced a great mass of vibrant work. 'One can see the joke of that.’ Ayres says. we should have these feelings – I’m actually alive at this moment! – but certainly for me. 'You wake up. though her work is very different. however. then I might have to work in a supermarket or something. the foundation of the family fortunes being a factory in Soho that made peaked caps for motorists. but in fact everything she says is vivid. But they did sell. at that moment.’ she says. a large number of those pictures produced with such joyful release were destroyed in the Momart art warehouse blaze in east London in 2004. and at the end of the day it’s got to be bloody done. about 20 of them. she gave up her job as the head of painting at Winchester School of Art (she was the first woman in Britain to hold such a post). then they went up in flames.’ To do it. 'and you’re not only alive but you don’t have to go back to work. enough for about three years. 'Lots of these burnt in that ruddy fire. north Devon – is quite simply to get away. and when people came to look at the house they used to say.’ she told the critic Mel Gooding. 'It’s a visual experience. like the colours in her pictures. who wrote a book about her in 2001.’ Ayres tends to add strong emphasis to her conversation.

There was a great fuss about it from my parents. as Gooding puts it. but continue to live together. the painter Terry Frost and another artist. but adds that they are friends and it works. who were perfectly supportive people. during the war. It is. who is also a painter. on the steps leading to the St Paul’s art room.’ she says. Henry Mundy. 'a close companion’. one picture a month was displayed. a strong yellow right up against a black. they wouldn’t do anything to you. I don’t think it ever has been.’ But Ayres got her way and went to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. an idiosyncratic individuality’ – most useful to an artist. Cézanne and Monet. they really were. when she went to St Paul’s Girls’ School and finally learnt to read. that’s all really.Ayres’s education was progressive and a bit sporadic until she was 11. 'It was just there. whom she married in 1951. Sam. They didn’t really throw anyone out in those days. preferring the 'intensity’ of. I was just attracted to painting.’ she says. the Welsh painter Gareth Williams – Mundy followed soon afterwards and moved into a wing. she has acknowledged. she says with outrage. It’s whatever ruddy gets you.’ The headmistress protested: 'You know what kind of men you get at art schools. one was always pushing for modernism’ – Van Gogh still being a bit radical in 1940s Britain. Claude Rogers (a Euston Road painter and teacher at Camberwell). 'The four who set me off were really bloody good.’ On the other hand. I was always just looking and painting – asking for oil paints at Christmas. 'Art schools were probably better than the rest of the world. Nowadays she shares the house in Devon with Mundy and their younger son. 'I insisted on going to art school.’ Ayres says. as Gooding observed in his book. Ayres was temperamentally adverse to the drab greyness of the average Euston Road painting. When she moved to Wales – with. One day in 1943. an unusual arrangement. among them the budding jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. 'would spend a day on a model’s foot’. and discovered many of her fellow students were ex-servicemen a decade or more older. say. so you were allowed to be. Then the young Ayres announced that she was going to study painting. 'I don’t think there was a desire to be subversive – I think one just felt ratty. My God! What they could do with painting!’ This exposure to Post-Impressionism was supplemented by cycle rides to the National Gallery where. 'I ran away from school when I was 16. 'I’m really horrified by them to this day. just not in the art world. she opened a series of books on Van Gogh. a very pretty teenager from a smart girls’ school. I wasn’t attracted to the art world. really. That was the moment the ambition to be a painter began.’ With her friend Shirley Williams – who had then decided to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister – Ayres taught art at weekends to the children of blitzed Stepney. which placed great emphasis on careful measurement of the model and cautious gradation of tones. It’s not an ambition to go against the grain. she . They divorced 30 years ago. This left her. with 'a kind of waywardness.’ But she didn’t like the kind of art that was prominent at Camberwell: the Euston Road school. Ayres liked the ambience at Camberwell. She arrived. Gauguin. 'Funnily enough. 'Looking at whatever you ruddy could which was around.

She got a job as a chambermaid at a hotel in Paris.’ With that. 'I’ve done a lot of different work. and the photographs of Pollock himself doing so.’ By the mid-1950s her talent and individuality. they are by no means effortless to create. 'You’ve got your mind on it all the time. And I can remember women saying that they wanted to give up their lives for their boyfriend. perhaps to her contemporaries. and now I’ve gone and changed again. she was also a woman. obsessively. so perfect for concentrating on painting.has mused in the past that when she taught. in a fidgety sort of way. 'I realise that. but Ayres herself seems to have ignored sexual discrimination. As well as being attracted to modernism.’ Though her paintings are easy to get pleasure from. Outside it is beginning to freeze again in this remote. had made Ayres one of the most advanced painters in Britain. You certainly won’t get a job teaching painting. despite a heart attack seven years ago that has curtailed her mobility. she returned to London where with Mundy she ran a gallery in Soho and set about becoming a painter.’ A month before the end of the Camberwell course Ayres left. I’ve got used to that conclusion.’ she says. Henry Mundy is at the table. plus several dogs. In the 1960s she used thin washes of acrylic. an area and what one does with it – I wanted to find out about that. in the 1980s and 90s she used skeins and whorls of thick oil paint like coloured rope or muscle. haven’t I?’ she says. who was a great artist. she has worked in all manner of diverse styles. her work of the 1970s was densely encrusted like some rich textile – hence the confusion with carpet. One has worked like hell. and I don’t know how to start either. 'The whole idea of the canvas as an arena in which to act. feeling – rather characteristically – that there was no point in taking the final exam. but I don’t think I know how to finish a picture. Which was not easy. and I want my paintings to be uplifting. Was that a disadvantage? Well. In the meantime. we stop for lunch. 'I don’t know that I ever came across such difficult people as myself. That was more than half a century ago. secluded place. I want to find something. and their sons. She was making abstract pictures by pouring and splattering paint on a canvas placed on the floor. but God knows it’s very worrying. sorry about that. Jim and Sam. It was more the idea or rumour of working like this. One does a hell of a lot of work. One worries terribly. 'which was pretty much out in this country’. that inspired her. red wine. plus a certain healthy rattiness.’ . We have roast beef. Eventually. you’d better teach needlework or graphic design or something. I do change. I was always very ratty if there was any of that sort of thing. turning down her father’s offer to support her for a year in Paris. but the drive and the obsession are still there. like all other obstacles. the first of her remote refuges. “You must enjoy yourself. 'People come up to me and say. like – but not in direct imitation of – Jackson Pollock. roast vegetables. 'I do remember a woman saying if you are female and you want to get on.” One’s lucky that one can do what one wants in life. As Gillian Ayres remarks.

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