Born in Fife in 1915, Gear studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1932. He expressed an early interest in Surrealism (which he soon abandoned) and had a brief brush with the Scottish Colourists when he was taught by SJ Peploe. Upon graduating, he won a travelling scholarship, taking him to Paris to study under Fernand Léger. His early works depicted bizarre structures in barren, post-apocalyptic landscapes, examples of which were shown in the first exhibition in Scotland of Surrealist art, in 1939. Called up in 1940, Gear met Merlyn Evans en-route to the Middle East, and Karl Otto Götz in Germany. He continued painting, staging solo exhibitions in Florence (1944), Hamburg (1947) and elsewhere.
From 1945-1947, Gear travelled to Germany where he worked as a Monuments Man. From 1947-1950, he settled in Paris where he befriended Jean-Michel Atlan, Alan Davie, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages, among others. His work grew more abstract, his influence changing from Klee to Léger and de Staël, with irrational shapes and a bold palette that prompted his friend Stephen Gilbert to introduce Gear to CoBrA, allowing him to exhibit in important early CoBrA shows in Copenhagen and in Amsterdam, in 1949. Later that year, Gear’s paintings were recommended to Betty Parsons, a prominent New York dealer and champion of Modernism, who arranged for a joint exhibition with Jackson Pollock. This was the first time his work was shown in America, and Gear was the only non-American who Pollock ever shared an exhibition with.
In the later summer of 1950, Gear stayed in Doëlan, in south Finistère, drawing and painting marine subjects. Later that year, he moved to Buckinghamshire with his new wife, where the abstracted fall of light glimpsed through tangled trees manifested itself in large, painterly canvases. A famous example is Autumn Landscape, painted for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It won a prize but its abstract nature and the fact that it was reproduced upside-down in the exhibition catalogue caused great controversy.
Gear pioneered the technique of silkscreen and was one of the first British artists to exhibit these prints as artworks in 1953. Gear also represented Britain at the 1952 São Paulo Bienale; shared exhibitions with Ivon Hitchens in London (1954) and with Sandra Blow in New York (1957); while examples of his work featured in British Council touring shows, including Seven British Artists, in 1959. In 1958, Gear was appointed curator of Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne.
In 1960, two paintings were included in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition—the first abstract works ever to be shown at the Academy. At the 1962 Summer Exhibition, his submissions were rejected by the RA Hanging Committee, prompting the sculptor F.E. McWilliam to resign in protest.
Gear quit his post as curator in 1964, and became Head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham University, where he remained until 1975. In this period, Gear painted dynamic, diagonal black armatures against vibrant detonations of colour, perfecting a new, thrilling evocation of light pulsing through foliage. From the 1970s onwards, the armatures no longer symbolised tree trunks, but jagged and irregular metal off-cuts, though the harsh forms were often complemented by warm tasches of colour. These years also saw him painting softer, more rounded shapes in amongst the hard edges. Gear spent his final years making abstractions with ink and oil-stick on paper.
From the 1970s until his death, Gear had a number of retrospective shows in various galleries and was part of many mixed CoBrA exhibitions. Gear was made a Senior Royal Academician aged eighty – some three decades after first exhibiting at the Academy. A major retrospective was staged at Towner, and toured to City Art Centre, Edinburgh, during 2015-2016.
Public collections include
City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham
Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow
Insituto de Arte Contemporaneo, Lima, Peru
Museum of Art, Ohio
Museum of Art, Tel Aviv
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Gallery of NSW, Sydney
Scottish Art Council, Edinburgh
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
McEWEN John, William Gear, Lund Humphries, 2003
LAMBIRTH, Andrew, Willam Gear, Samson & Company, 2015
2015, William Gear 1915-1997: The painter that Britain forgot, Towner Museum, Eastbourne. A Touring Exhibition: 2016, City Art Centre, Edinburgh; William Gear: A Centenary Exhibition, Redfern Gallery, London.
2011, William Gear: Into the Sixties, Redfern Gallery, London.
2007, William Gear: Into the Fifties, Redfern Gallery, London.
1997, William Gear Golden Jubilee Exhibition, Redfern Gallery, London; William Gear, Sprengel Museum, Hanover.
1996, Galerie Scheffel, Bad Homburg.
1995, William Gear - Past and Present Friends, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham; Gear and Heron, Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh.
1992, William Gear 1950-70, Leeman Art Gallery, Amsterdam; William Gear, Galerie Gabriele von Loeper, Hamburg; William Gear CoBrA and After, Galerie Doris Wullkopf, Darmstadt; William Gear, Paintings 1955-56, Redfern Gallery, London.
1990, 75th Birthday Exhibition, Paintings and Works on Paper, Cobra and After, Redfern Gallery, London; Kunsthandel Leeman Amsterdam.
1989, Galerie Gabriele Von Loeper. Hamburg.
1988, Karl & Faber, Munich; Cobrabstractions 1946-1949, Galerie 1900-2000, Paris.
1987, The CoBrA Years 1948-1951, Redfern Gallery, London.
1985, Retrospective Exhibition, Kircaldy Art Gallery, Fife and Netherbow Art Centre, Edinburgh.
1983, Painting into Landscape, Spacex Gallery, Exeter.
1982, Retrospective Exhibition, Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.
1980, North Staffs Polytechnic, Stoke.
1976, Retrospective Exhibition, R B S A Galleries, Birmingham.
1969, Paintings 1948-68, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Scottish Arts Council Belfast, Londonderry and Glasgow.
1967, Gimpel Fils, London and Bonython Galleries, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
1966, Joint exhibition with Alan Davie, Edinburgh Festival, Commonwealth Institute Gallery, Edinburgh.
1965, Birmingham University and Midland Group, Nottingham.
1964, Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford.
1962, Retrospective Exhibition, Towner Art Gallery Eastbourne and Bolton, Bristol, Bradford, Leicester, Nottingham, Oldham and Portsmouth.
1961, Retrospective Exhibition, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London.
1960, The Stone Gallery, Newcastle.
1958, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London.
1957, Joint exhibition with Sandra Blow, Saidenberg Gallery, New York.
1954, Retrospective Exhibition, South London Gallery, London.
1952, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London.
1951, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London.
1949, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London; Betty Parsons Gallery, New York.
1948, Gimpel Fils Gallery, London; Galerie Arc en Ciel, Paris.
1947, Celle and Hamburg.
1944, Galleria Michelangelo, Florence.