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 William Gear (1915-1997) 

William Gear.jpg

Abstract artist William Gear was born in Fife, Scotland on August 2, 1915 to a coal mining family. He later attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1932 to 1936, and studied art history at the University of Edinburgh. At the young age of eighteen, his work was accepted into the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy for the first time. He was subsequently featured in exhibitions by the Society of Scottish Artists and with the Fine Arts Society. In 1937 he was awarded a scholarship to study art abroad for one year. He spent five months in Paris, where he studied under the French artist Fernand Léger, and continued to Italy, the Balkans, Greece, and Istanbul. In the course of these travels, he was exposed to some of the greatest works of art in the world.


In May 1940, soon after the outbreak of World War II, Gear was called up for service with the Royal Corps of Signals. After completing basic training at Whitby, and Officers Training at Aldershot, he was sent to Egypt, where he was then assigned to the Signals unit in Jerusalem. He served briefly in Gaza and Cyprus before successfully requesting a transfer to the Italian division. In Italy, he served as Signals Officer in charge of thirty men of the Folgore Division. During this time, he managed to continue painting and even held small exhibitions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Rome, Siena, and Florence.


Following V-E Day on May 8, 1945, Gear returned to Britain for a short period of leave. He then reported for duty at the headquarters of the Scottish Command at Edinburgh Castle, where he was assigned to the 15th Scottish Division in Hamburg, Germany. Soon after, he was invited to join the MFAA. As a Monuments Officer in Hanover, he worked alongside fellow Monuments Man Capt. Peter Eden. Together, they oversaw the return of artworks from the Berlin Art Collections, some of which had been stored for safekeeping in the nearby Schloss Celle. Gear’s duties also included promoting the work of avant-garde German artists, which he accomplished by arranging a series of modern art exhibitions. Upon viewing the contents of one of the ‘degenerate art' portfolios stored at the Schloss, Gear organized the popular public exhibition Modern Prints, containing such prime examples as Picasso's Frugal Meal and Kirchner's Und so Weiter, along with other woodcuts by the German Expressionists. As a member of an international committee organized to design a memorial at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Gear visited the camp and was so deeply moved by the experience that it affected his later work.


Gear returned to Paris in April 1947 and opened his own studio. He quickly became an influential member of the avant-garde Cobra movement and exhibited at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. In 1950 he returned to England, where he painted his best-known work, Autumn Landscape, recipient of the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize. The painting's dynamic, abstract forms created a controversy which established him as a well-known artist in the following years, however he fell out of critical favor in the 1960s and 1970s. As one critic wrote, Gear's paintings reflected a “vigorous gaiety" and a “landscape reminiscence […] suggesting dappled sunlight in autumn leaves."


Gear was the curator of the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, England from 1958 to 1964, where he expanded the gallery’s collection of British modern art. In 1964 he was appointed Head of the Faculty of Fine Art at the Birmingham School of Art, remaining there until his retirement in 1975. He also served as Chairman of the fine arts committee of the Council of National Academic Awards. In 1995 he was elected to the Royal Academy and continued painting throughout the later years of his life. A few weeks before his death, he was awarded the Leporello Prize by the Lower Saxony government for his service with the MFAA.


Bill Gear died in Birmingham, England on February 27, 1997. His works continue to be exhibited and sold today.

Photo courtesy of Der Spiegel.

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