Gillian Ayres RA Salix, 1990-91. Photo: R.A./John Hammond © The Artist

Object of the Month - November 2016


Gillian Ayres RA (b.1930), Salix, 1990-91

This impressive painting, at almost two metres wide, features bold and colourful abstract shapes. Ayres states that her titles are arbitrary but the title of this work, Salix, may encourage viewers to make figurative associations as it is the Latin term for the Willow family of trees and shrubs.

Despite many possible associations, Ayres insists she is a purely abstract painter saying abstraction "has been the force of this century visually." Her thick, confident application of paint stems from American abstract expressionism. Her bright colours and shapes connect her with pop-art. She was friends with fellow British painters Howard Hodgkin, Victor Pasmore, Roger Hilton and William Johnstone and other artists she references as inspirations are Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and all Venetian painting.

When Ayres was commissioned to paint a mural for South Hampstead High School, a famous photograph of Jackson Pollock at work inspired her to paint on her hands and knees. Just as for Pollock, a commission for a mural from Peggy Guggenheim spurred him to create the large-scale works that would define his career; Ayres' mural also alerted her to the power of painting vast canvases. She said, "a large-scale canvas has the possibility of one's body movement relating to it, of obtaining a sense of place and the sublime."

The artist's physical act of creation remains evident in the work. She builds up paint into thick impasto often bypassing the use of brushes to make marks with her hands loaded with paint. The intimate connection Ayres has with her painting affirms its importance to the artist who is driven to paint every day. She says "when you're born an artist, it's almost like you're trying to breathe. You can't do anything else."

Ayres was born in 1930 in Barnes and went to art school despite her parents trying to bribe her with a global trip instead. She studied at Camberwell College of Art from 1945 to '50, although she left a month before graduating believing exams to be 'bourgeois'. She lived in London, then Wales, and now in a remote house in Cornwall. She has travelled widely including to India in 1991 where she was Britain's only representative at the Seventh Triennale India. Ayres was the first woman to run a British art school's painting department as Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art between 1978 and 1981. She was awarded an OBE in 1986 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991.