William "Bill" Gear (1915-1997)

The London Group (TLG) is teaming up again with Waterloo Festival over two exhibitions at this year's edition, later in June. We both have a shared past: the Festival of Britain 1951, for which St John's served as the 'Festival Church' and several artists from the TLG contributed. David Redfern, Archivist at TLG, explores artists featured in the 1951 celebrations in a series of articles. First one, below.

Hans Feibusch, who painted the murals in St. John’s, was an important artist in his own rite but was also a long serving member of a group of artists called The London Group, formed in 1913 by notable artists of the time such as Walter Sickert, Jacob Epstein, David Bomberg, Harold Gilman and Thérèse Lessore. It has been said of the Group that the history of The London Group is the history of British art for most of the twentieth century and Feibusch was elected to this illustrious group in 1934 along with Victor Pasmore and John Tunnard. Never far from controversy, individual members attracted attention with their radical approaches to contemporary art. One such was William Gear.

William Gear, in Egbaston Studio (1979)

William ‘Bill’ Gear is unknown to many but enjoys a respectable reputation within the art world, particularly for his teaching at Birmingham College of Art where he headed the Faculty of Fine Art from 1964 to 1975. He first came to the public’s attention in 1951 when his painting “Autumn Landscape”, now in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, was awarded a purchase prize in the Arts Council’s exhibition “60 paintings for ‘51” during the Festival of Britain. Of the five prize winners, Gear’s was the only abstract painting, which the public and press of the time did not consider worthy of such an accolade. Questions were literally asked in the House and the “Daily Mail” thundered its opposition, as did Sir Alfred Munnings, the then President of the Royal Academy. This was a pivotal moment for British art, as abstraction, over fifty years old and dominant in European visual culture, fought for recognition and acceptance with the British general public.

David Redfern, “Study of Autumn Landscape”, watercolour and acrylics.

Gear had travelled widely as a student and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris before the Second World War. He was called up in 1940 and served with the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in the Middle East before participating in the Allied invasion of Italy. In 1944 he held his first solo exhibitions in Siena and Florence. After the war he worked for the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied Control Commission which brought him into contact with many European artists. The years 1947 to 1950 saw a return to Paris where he met the abstract artists De Stael, Dubuffet, Poliakoff and Soulages amongst others. In 1948 he visited St. Ives in Cornwall where he met British abstractionists, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Winter, most of whom were later elected to The London Group. Gear joined the North European avant-garde CoBrA group in 1950 in Amsterdam and also showed with Jackson Pollock in New York.

However, the year 1951 and the Festival of Britain controversy proved to be a positive experience for Gear. In 1953 he was elected to The London Group and in December the Second Sao Paulo Biennale took place where William Gear, Merlyn Evans, Patrick Heron, Ceri Richards and William Scott, all members of The London Group, represented Great Britain. Gear remained active within the Group and served on the 1963 London Group Selection Committee with David Hockney whilst in 1967 he had a painting purchased by the Arts Council from that year’s London Group Annual Exhibition. It is hard to believe that abstract painting, totally accepted today by critics and public alike, could have caused such a furore; for the UK,1951 was a turning point in so many ways.

David Redfern

The London Group Archivist


The London Group was set up in 1913 by thirty two artists creating a powerful artist-run group to act as a counter-balance to institutions such as the Royal Academy. The founding group created a unique structure for an organisation, that has gone on to successfully nurture the careers of many of Britain's best-known artists.