'There is something about the combination of gorgeous colour and shape, of abstraction that echoes natural forms that I find intoxicating'

Illium, 2011, by Gillian Ayres RA, (b. 1930), 4ft by 6ft, Private Collection

Alexandra Pringle says:
Gillian Ayres has been my friend since the early 1980s. We have travelled together in India, Egypt and Yemen and my times spent with her in her homes in Wales, then Devon and in far-flung places are some of the most precious of my life. Her work lights me up. There is something about the combination of gorgeous colour and shape, of abstraction that echoes natural forms that I find intoxicating, that gives me a rush of joy every time I look at her work. Like Matisse, as she gets older, Gillian’s work becomes bolder, more vigorous, more exciting and youthful. This, Illium, from a recent exhibition, is a perfect representation of all that I love about the work of Gillian Ayres.

Alexandra Pringle is editor in chief at Bloomsbury

John McEwen comments on Illium:
Gilliam Ayres titles her paintings merely to differentiate them—‘my paintings are never really of their titles’—and avoids explanations. ‘The colour I use doesn’t come from nature in any direct sort of way. It comes from pots of paint,’ she has said.

Her studio home is a 15th-century cottage down a rough track in Cornwall, the last of the country hideaways— first in north Wales, then Devon—that she has lived in since the 1980s, when she finally gave up teaching, finishing as head of painting at Winchester College of Art. But her happy and prosperous childhood was in Barnes, from where her father worked dutifully in the Ayres’s Soho factory, founded on the demand for motorists’ peaked caps.

At six, she entered a progressive Frobel day school: ‘They let you race ahead with what you were interested in, a method that is sadly out of fashion today because we all have to conform.’ It influenced her teaching, Yoko Ono and Gilbert George among her students. At St Paul’s Girls’ School, she discovered Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Monet and, as an art student, was bowled over by the illustrated 1949 Life magazine article on Jackson Pollock. She took flight for Cornwall from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts rather than face her finals: ‘I wanted abstraction, I wanted pure painting.’ So it has remained.

‘Gillian Ayres’ at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (April 8– September 3) is a retrospective with special attention paid to her 1980s Welsh paintings. It coincides with a new monograph by David Cleaton-Roberts, Martin Gayford and Andrew Marr, published by Art/Books, and an exhibition of new work, ‘Paintings and Woodcuts’, at Alan Cristea Gallery, London SW1 (March 16–April 22).

 

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