Gillian Ayres was born in London in 1930 and studied at the Camberwell School of Art between 1946 and 1950. An early admirer of American Abstract Expressionism, she exhibited her work in several group shows organised by the London Group from 1951 and in Situation: An Exhibition of British Abstract Painting at the Royal Society of British Artists (1960). She also worked part-time at the Artists’ International Association Gallery from 1951 to 1959.
In 1977, Ayres switched from painting in acrylic to oil, a medium that allowed her to work in a freer, more gestural style. From 1959–78 she taught at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham and at St Martin's School of Art, London. She became Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art in 1978, a post she held until 1981, when she relocated to North Wales and devoted herself to full-time painting. She later moved to the Cornwall-Devon border where she continued to paint for the rest of her life.
Ayres was elected Associate of the Royal Academy (RA) in 1982 and was awarded the OBE in 1986. She was made a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art in 1996 and was awarded the Sargent Fellowship of the British School at Rome the following year. A major exhibition of her work was held at the RA in early 1997. However, by the end of that year she was one of a number of artists who resigned from the RA in protest against the inclusion of a portrait of child-killer Myra Hindley, by Marcus Harvey, in the controversial group exhibition, Sensation. She re-joined the RA in 2000.
In 2005, Ayres received an Honorary Fellowship from the University of Arts, London. She was appointed an OBE in 1986; and CBE in 2011. During 2012–13 her solo exhibition, Gillian Ayres works on paper 1990–2011, toured to Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; Turnpike Gallery, Leigh; Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter; and the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, UK. More recently, in 2015, an exhibition of Ayres’ new paintings and prints was held at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. In 2017, the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff hosted a major retrospective of her paintings and works on paper produced from the 1970s up to the present day. In the same year, her exhibition, Sailing Off the Edge, was held at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
Ayres died on 11 April 2018.
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