In the centenary of his birth, Towner is delighted to present a major retrospective of the work of William Gear, one of the leading abstract British painters of his generation. William Gear, The painter that Britain forgot traces the influence and prolific output of a now little-known painter who was associated with CoBrA in the 1940s, and produced some of the most radical and controversial compositions of the 1950s.

The exhibition runs in parallel to A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958 - 1964 (9 May – 31 August), which explores Gear’s tenure as curator at Towner during which time he established their now acclaimed collection, acquiring works by major British abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s including Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards.

William Gear, The painter that Britain forgot draws together around 80 works representing the different phases of Gear’s oeuvre: from the pen and ink drawings and early experiments in colour of his emerging style in the 1930s and 1940s, to the radical, near-monochrome and block abstractions of the 1950s, to a mature, yet playful exuberance in the 1960s and beyond. Whilst many of the titles of the work are abstract – Composition Interior, Composition Blue Centre and Composition October – others clearly allude to their subject matter; Christmas Tree, Grey Trunks, Summer Fete and Footballers. Central to the show is Autumn Landscape, a work that caused a public outcry when awarded the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize in 1951. The exhibition also presents Gear as printmaker; he was the first British artist to present screenprints as works of fine art.

Growing up in a Scottish mining community in Fife, Gear’s early talent for drawing was encouraged and after studying at Edinburgh College of Art, he spent significant time in Paris working with Fernand Legér. He travelled widely during the war, including a stint with the ‘Monuments Men’, but returned to Paris in 1947. After meeting the artists of the avant-garde CoBrA movement Gear exhibited with them in Amsterdam and Paris in 1949. In the same year his work was shown in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery, alongside Jackson Pollock. He returned to live in the UK from 1950 exhibiting in London and internationally, including at the 1954 Venice Biennale.

William Gear, The painter that Britain forgot is a collaboration with City Arts Centre, Edinburgh, the city where Gear studied, and Towner, Eastbourne where he was curator, and has works on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland; Royal Academy, London; and Tate. Following Towner, Gear was appointed Head of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art, where he became an important part of the city’s cultural and artistic life, mentoring and encouraging young artists while continuing his own experimental works.

William Gear a new book about the artist’s life by art critic Andrew Lambirth is published by Sansom & Co in July 2015.