Gillian Ayres and breaking the tenth commandment

A million years ago when I was at school (the Abbey in Reading, seeing you ask) I spent quite a lot of the time staring at the prints on the wall rather than doing whatever it is was that I was supposed to be doing. That Monet of people coming through a poppy field seemed to follow me round, or perhaps they had more than one, so I got to know it quite well, that and the Renoir Umbrellas and then there was the Picasso of a Child with a Dove which I used to look at in Prayers, as we called Assembly then.  Oh, I nearly forgot those Durer praying hands and the Giotto of an angel telling the Virgin Mary something or other.  After all, it was, and indeed still is, a Church of England school. All of them, well, all except the hands, are good pictures by great artists, but hardly what you would call challenging. In fact if you were going to compile a job lot of pictures that could be relied upon not to upset the most conventional of parents, they could well be the first five on your list. I bet they are all still there today. If you happen to go to the Abbey, do let me know.

I had imagined until today that all girls’ schools were pretty well like that; indeed I would have been prepared to bet that you could find at least one of the above paintings in any girls’ school across the land. So you can imagine how impressed I was when I visited the Jerwood Gallery to see that Gillian Ayres exhibition and found that the series of her paintings that I liked the best had been specially commissioned in 1957 by architect Michael Greenwood to hang in the dining room at South Hampstead High School.  ‘My, what a school that must have been,’ I thought, ‘and how inspirational it must have been for the girls to become familiar with art that was so confident, so bold, so exciting, so fun, so uplifting and a work furthermore which had been created by a woman, why, it must have made them feel they could achieve anything.’

All Ayres painting are large, exuberant, colourful and give the impression of motion but the Hampstead Mural is particularly so. It still appears fresh and dynamic. Over 50 years ago it must have seemed quite revolutionary. Ayres was just 27 when she painted it. In the video which accompanies the exhibition she explains how she was paid just £100 for the mural which is made up of four separate panels. Apart from this modest cash payment, the school had also provided beautifully primed boards on which to paint it. When workmen, employed on the renovation, and who had presumably done the careful priming, saw her adopt what was then her customary painting technique of placing the panels on the floor and pouring paint over them, they were alarmed and alerted Greenwood who of course saw nothing unexpected because he had the vision to recognise Ayres’ extraordinary talent in what were then her unconventional methods.

The showing at the Jerwood, is the first time that the Hampstead Mural has been on public display; it really is worth a visit,  maybe even by girls from South Hampstead. Sadly when the work is at home it no longer presides over the dining room for which it was commissioned but lives in the staff room. Proving that schools the world over share the same flaws, the Hampstead Mural has not always been appreciated and at one point was covered up by wallpaper. Perhaps the Jerwood exhibition will underline to the school just what they possess.

While I particularly desired, the Hampstead Mural, I loved all the pieces in the Jerwood exhibition. Whereas with some art you come to appreciate it by studying it and trying to understand it, for me Ayres’ work had the immediate effect of inducing me to break the tenth commandment – thou shalt not covet. (See I did learn something in all those Abbey School RE lessons)

So why am I so enthusiastic about Ayres? Intellectualising what is a visceral feeling is always difficult; the works for a start have a wonderful richness of colours. They were apparently unplanned and indeed in the complexity of the paint effects that Ayres achieves, they appear to me to have been unplannable.  She uses Ripolin, which is a French household gloss paint much used by Picasso. By introducing artist paints into the mix she creates, strange marbled effects. The paintings are all abstract though some bear the names of places of places Cwm Bran, for instance, a town in Wales where Ayres used to enjoy walking; others such as Cumuli or Unstill Centre suggest the thoughts were in her mind at the time.

Gillian Ayres: Unstill Centre

Although abstract, the viewer will tend to see their own representational ideas – a sunburst , a beach, clouds – but not people. Ayres revealed that she was never interested in painting the human form. The more you look at the paintings, the more you see, strange wrinkles, splashes, cracks, streaks, spatters, odd gobbits of paint – odd but right; gobbits of other things, clear glue like dollops, bitumen perhaps; in places the paint is scraped away to show the hardboard beneath. In all, the paintings are a celebration of paint – and of painting, an instruction on what can be done with paint.  It is amazing to think that many of them are fifty years old.  As with all good celebrations there is an energy about them that is infectious; anybody who sees them surely must leave the exhibition feeling happier than when they went in.

Gillian Ayres: Paintings from the ’50s will be on show at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings until 25 November

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