Gillian Ayres lives much too far away, at least for visitors (it seems to suit her rather well). From London, you take the train to Exeter, then drive west as far as Launceston and north in the direction of the seaside town of Bude. As you eat up the miles, village after village sails by, each one tinier than the last, until you reach hers — and even then, you’re not done.
The final stage of the odyssey involves a dramatic drive down a single-track lane, thick woods on either side. So steep is it that twice I give up and turn back, thinking this cannot possibly be right. But then, at last, I hit the valley bottom. Here is a clutch of hunkered houses, of which Tall Trees, Ayres’s butter-coloured cottage, is the very last. Sliding up her path in the soft spring rain, I feel a little like a child in a fairy tale. Where am I? This place feels secret, lost, as if time has stood still.
The door is opened by Sam Mundy, Ayres’s artist son, with whom she lives. He asks whether I would prefer tea or Champagne — thinking of the hill, I choose tea — and then he takes me into a front parlour, low-ceilinged and cluttered with books, where I find both his mother, and his father, Ayres’s 96-year-old ex-husband, the artist Henry Mundy. (‘We didn’t live together in the 1970s,’ she will tell me later of the man she married in 1951, ‘but some time in the early 1980s he came back and never left.’)
Gillian Ayres, Dawn-bright Lawn, 2013. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London. Main image at top: Gillian Ayres, photographed in her studio near Bude, Cornwall. By Ben Mostyn
There are also several cats — the family has five — and two small dogs, of which one (Nellie) is completely blind. ‘We had exotic chickens, too, until recently,’ says Ayres, lighting one of her beloved Player’s. How long has she lived here? ‘Oh, about 27 years,’ she says, vaguely. ‘I came here from Wales. I saw this, and thought, “Oh, please let me have it.” It had a library, you see, which I could make into a studio.’
Did she worry about its remoteness? ‘Well, I do remember asking if we’d be snowed in, but they told us that never happened. It is a very weird place, though. There were all sorts of stories [about those who lived here]: conscientious objectors during the war, and [the novelist] Henry Williamson, too. There are some people who think that it’s really here that Tarka the Otter is set.’
At 85, she could no sooner imagine giving up painting than running at speed through the bluebells down to the sea
Ayres is 85, and unsteady on her feet; standing in the studio is harder than it used to be. But she could no sooner imagine giving up painting than running at speed through the bluebells that trail down to the sea. The oils that comprised the most recent show at her gallery, Alan Cristea, are on the big side — the largest is 345cm wide — and the new works burst so fiercely with colour, they stand as an obvious rebuke to the greyness of old age. (Their titles — Midnight’s All a Glimmer; Winter’s Nipping Wrongs — add to this impression.) I can’t look at them without thinking of late Matisse.
Is she still thrilled at the prospect of a new show? No. It’s not excitement she feels, exactly; she simply has a need that must be satisfied. ‘I don’t think anyone wants to die and end up in the attic, that’s the thing. You want to get out there, even though you don’t work for the people out there. You work for yourself, but then some terrible thing takes over.’ She snorts. ‘Of course, people talk about this [selling] a lot more than when I was young. At the Royal College, they practically teach students how to do their VAT nowadays.’
What goes through her mind when she’s working? ‘I’m very bad at talking about it. I can only answer truthfully. All that goes through my mind is the painting itself.’ Does she know how it will look when it’s finished? ‘Not at all. All I can say is that one picture sometimes feeds another.’
One just happens to be a painter. One has always wanted to know: what can it, paint, do?
How does she know when something is complete? ‘You don’t. You sort of know. But then you can come back to it six months later, and change it completely.’ Her gallery doesn’t pressure her for work, but if it did, she’d be off like a shot. ‘They’re beautifully undominant, but I wouldn’t have it if they tried [to hurry me]. I’ve had that in the past, someone saying, “Can you do a five-foot in blue to go over a fireplace?” I was absolutely furious. I’d be very fidgety [if they interfered].’
In the old days, on a roll, she would sometimes paint all night. ‘I used to go a bit potty. It was almost like I couldn’t stop. That doesn’t happen now, but I still need the whole day ahead of me. I don’t want a dental appointment or any other ruddy appointment interrupting!’ Is she interested in her collectors? ‘No more than I am in other people. I can get curious, especially when prices go up, and they sell. Though [there is] that cynical side: one doesn’t really want to know about it.’
Gillian Ayres, Tremenheere, 2014. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London
After a period in the wilderness, painting, by general agreement, is back in fashion. Naturally, this amuses Ayres, who never gave it up in the first place. ‘That’s all one is: paint,’ she says, with another of her diffident smiles (these smiles are, I think, designed to obscure a certain beadiness). ‘I like writing and music, too. But one just happens to be a painter. One has always wanted to know: what can it, paint, do?’
She discovered the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin in books when she was still at school, and has never stopped looking since. ‘In London, one spent one’s life puddling around in galleries. I’ve always looked a hell of a lot. A few painters one has gone off: Chagall is one, and Rouault another. Some fade. Others bored me from the start. I remember being in Paris at a show by Bernard Buffet, and I was bored stiff. But I’ll never stop looking.’ She pauses briefly, anxious that I don’t misunderstand. ‘The point is that you can think the earth of other people, but one doesn’t ever want to be them. One wants to do it oneself. One just gets so utterly miserable if one can’t.’
Ayres was born in South London, and grew up in Barnes, the youngest of three sisters. Her father owned a factory that made smart hats. Her first school was the progressive Froebel in Roehampton, which was the kind of place where children learned gardening and where ‘they didn’t do much to you if you swore’. But her days there ended with the war.
Gillian Ayres, Cumuli, 1959. A monumental diptych in oil and enamel paint. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London
‘It packed up in 1939, and I was to be evacuated to somewhere near Oxford. I had no emotion about it at all. But when we drove up to this big house with my suitcases, I heard my mother say to my father, “Drive on, I’m not leaving her here.”’ Back in London, she spent her time ‘riding around Barnes on my bicycle’ until a makeshift school for five-to-18-year-olds opened up in a nearby air-raid shelter. She remembers the Blitz vividly, particularly the V2s, which used to fall quiet in so sinister a fashion before dropping their deadly cargo: ‘You couldn’t hear the bloody thing. That was nervy.’
At 11, she went to St Paul’s in West London, where the former Education Secretary Shirley Williams became a friend. ‘It was military! You might as well have been in the army. You couldn’t have your hair touching your shoulder. You couldn’t take your hat off. If you went and bought an ice cream, you’d get expelled.’ Perhaps it was this that drove her into the art room, where the teachers seemed so much more… sympathetic.
Among them was a sister of Victor Pasmore, who would later teach Ayres at art school. ‘At lunchtime, no one ever wanted to sit with the teachers, but I wanted to sit with her because this Penguin book [a volume in the Penguin Modern Painters series which was edited by Kenneth Clark] had come out about her brother. I wanted to talk about him, but she wouldn’t. I think she was ashamed, because Pasmore had been a conscientious objector.’
In the 1950s and 1960s, people were always attacking you for what you did if you were, as I was, working in abstraction
Still, it was thanks to Pasmore that, at 16, she went to Camberwell School of Art, where he taught. ‘He went on writing to me until he died. I remember one letter that said, “You jumped in at the deep end, but you managed to get out.”’ She liked him, but thought the Euston Road School — the group he founded with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers in the late 1930s — a huge bore. (The Euston Road artists placed great emphasis on realism, but after 1947, Pasmore broke with them and moved into abstraction.)
‘I hated their dominance, and the way they taught. You’d do a Braque-style drawing, and they’d come up and have a row with you because it wasn’t what they did. You were always waiting for the row. You have to be careful with teachers: they might be in the business of making an audience for themselves. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were always attacking you for what you did if you were, as I was, working in abstraction. Your nerves used to go, you seized up with all this talk that you were a charlatan, that even a child could do it. One hated having to be defensive. No wonder I was a complete sucker for people who genuinely liked my work, even if it was just the gas man.’
The first artist to whom she could talk deeply and freely about her kind of abstract expressionism was Roger Hilton. They met in 1951, and he was a major influence. Ayres taught for a long time herself, first at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, later at St Martin’s in London and Winchester School of Art, where she was head of painting.
The artist in her studio on Chiswick Mall, London, in 1958. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London
What kind of teacher was she? ‘I think you can have your opinions, but you should allow people to develop. I’m glad I don’t have to do it now. I don’t think I’d ever have chosen it, but how else are you going to pay the bills? Nobody bought work in those days, save for the British Council, the Arts Council and some local councils. There were no private buyers. If you had a show, the students would come and eat their lunch there.’
She wasn’t able to live by her work alone until she reached her late Fifties. ‘I didn’t know it would happen, but somehow it did. All I wanted was the time to work, and not to have to live by what I called bum jobs. Even if I won the pools, I’d still work, I’d still want to exhibit and be in MoMA.’
In her shoes, most male artists, I tell her, would insist that their talent and determination had simply paid off, as if success was their due — and she half agrees. ‘You have to be an idiot not to know what the world is like. I’m not confident deep down. You’re frightened about how bad you might be. You always come up against that.’
She met Henry Mundy when they shared a job at a gallery in Lisle Street, and together they had two sons (the older is Jim, who works as a mechanic). When they married, it was Mundy who was the better known of the two, but somewhere along the way, her light began to shine the brighter. ‘We’ve never worked together,’ she says, skating over the awkwardness. By the window, Harry sits silently, his head bent prayerfully over a book. ‘He’s very old,’ she says. ‘He can’t stand to paint. So he fills all these sketch books instead.’
Later on, she shows me: page upon page of monochrome patterns. When the books are filled, he uses whatever is to hand: most recently, the slips of cardboard that once held cat food. When she talks about Mundy, she sounds at once blasé and strangely proud.
Sam comes into the room. ‘Lunch is ready,’ he says. We leave Harry to his book, and troop into the kitchen, detouring via the studio, which is freezing cold, paint-spattered and muddled, and so full of stuff there hardly seems room to work (the thing I like best about it is a small still life by a window, which Ayres painted in the 1940s, and which, when you see it alongside her vast abstracts, illustrates rather brilliantly the story of her life in paint).
For lunch, there is stew and mash and red wine, and after this, the most enormous and boozy sherry trifle. While we eat —– Ayres has a good appetite, for all that she is an unrepentant chain-smoker — we talk about all sorts of things: her friendship with the novelist Angela Carter; her garden, which she misses now she cannot take care of it herself; her low-key brand of feminism. ‘We were encouraged to do our own washing from the age of 12,’ says Sam. ‘She was unyielding about that, and quite right, too. You can’t paint if you’re washing.’ Who did the cooking? ‘Harry, quite often,’ says Ayres. ‘He still does it now. He makes very good tempura.’
After a while, Jim arrives. Together, he and Sam must transport the last of their mother’s completed canvases up the hill, where they will be collected and taken to London for the show (the van cannot make it down here). Once these pictures are gone, Ayres will continue on her latest project: a set of waist–height ceramic pots. This is the first time — she is amazed at the departure — she has ever worked in clay.
At the table, she lights yet another cigarette. Does smoking help with the work? ‘Oh, yes. The doctors forbade it when I had my pacemaker fitted, and I didn’t while I was in hospital. But then I got in the car and immediately thought, “Thank God for that”, and had one. What is it? I don’t know. It’s such a pleasure it’s bloody ridiculous. It just does… everything.’ She waves an arm expansively, a plume of smoke veiling her amazing blue eyes.
Eventually, I get up to go, in spite of their protestations. If I don’t leave soon, I’ll never make it back to London. A strange mist has come down; my return journey is going to be all the slower. ‘Thank you for coming,’ she says.
In this corner of her kitchen, surrounded by pot plants, condiments and yet more piles of books, she makes me think of a spider, settled in its web. Drink, cigarette, both sons. A show about to open. A visitor about to leave. A studio silently awaiting her return. The contentment is palpable, as if you could reach out and touch it. It is, I think, just as she told me: all she wants is to be able to work.
New work by Gillian Ayres can be seen at the Summer Exhibitions of the Royal Academy (8 June–16 August) and Alan Cristea Gallery (22 July–12 September)
This article appears in the July 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here
For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily