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Fleischner, Charles | Gear, William | Grier, Capt. Harry D.

Gear, William  

Major, Royal Corps of Signals, British Element, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives

Scottish-born artist William Gear attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1932 to 1936, and studied art history at the University of Edinburgh. In 1937 he was awarded a traveling scholarship and moved to Paris to study under the French artist Fernand Léger. Following the outbreak of World War II, Gear was called up for military service and joined the Royal Corps of Signals in 1940.[1] After Officers Training at Aldershot, Second Lieutenant Gear, outfitted with tropical kit, was sent to Egypt where he was then assigned to his Signals unit in Jerusalem. After brief service in Gaza and Cyprus, Gear requested an Italian posting when the Italian invasion began and served as Signals Officer for the Folgore Division. He managed to continue painting while in the army and even held exhibitions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Rome, Siena, and Florence.

Following VE Day on May 8, 1945, Gear had several months remaining to serve before demobilization and requested service in Germany. He was initially assigned to the 15th Scottish Division, located north of Hamburg, however after it became known that Gear was a trained artist, he was invited to join the MFAA and he readily accepted with the promotion to Major. While serving as the Monuments Officer in Hanover, he oversaw the return of artworks from the Berlin Art Collections, some of which had been stored for safekeeping in the nearby Schloss Celle. His duties also included promoting the work of avant-garde German artists, which he accomplished by arranging a series of modern art exhibitions. Upon viewing the contents of one of the ‘degenerate art’ portfolios stored at the Schloss, Gear organized the popular public exhibition Modern Prints, containing such prime examples as Picasso’s Frugal Meal and Kirchner’s Und so Weiter, along with other woodcuts by the German Expressionists. As a member of an international committee organized to design a memorial at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Gear visited the camp and was so deeply moved by the experience that it affected his later work. At the end of his MFAA service, Gear discovered the job to be so rewarding that he remained an additional year, working a total of 15 months.

In April of 1947, Gear departed his MFAA post in Hanover and returned to Paris where he established a studio and remained until 1950. He became a part of the avant-garde Cobra movement and exhibited at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. That year Gear married Charlotte Chertok, and they, along with their child, returned to England in 1950. The same year he painted his best-known work, Autumn Landscape, which received a Festival of Britain Purchase Prize. The painting’s dynamic, abstract forms created a controversy which made him a well-known artist in the following years, however he fell out of critical favor in the 1960s and 70s. As one critic wrote, Gear’s paintings reflected a “vigorous gaiety” and a “landscape reminiscence […] suggesting dappled sunlight in autumn leaves.”[2]

Gear was the curator of the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, England from 1958 to 1964, where he expanded the modern British art collection. In 1964 Gear was appointed Head of the faculty of fine art at the Birmingham School of Art, where he remained until his retirement in 1975. He also served as the chairman of the fine art committee of the Council of National Academic Awards for two years prior to his retirement. In 1995, Gear was elected to the Royal Academy and continued painting throughout the later years of his life. Several weeks before his death in 1997, he was awarded the Leporello Prize by the Lower Saxony government for his work with the MFAA.

[1] John McEwen, William Gear (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2003), 19.
[2] “Art of William Gear,” The Times [London], February 2, 1961, 16.


Copyrighted by Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art