Lot 25
  • 25


40,000 - 60,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Gillian Ayres
  • Nimbus
  • signed, dated 61 and titled on the reverse; also signed, titled and inscribed on the stretcher bar; further signed twice and inscribed on the canvas overlap
  • oil and Ripolin on canvas
  • 213 by 152cm.; 83 3/4 by 59 3/4 in.


Gifted by the Artist to Anthea Alley and by thence descent to the present owner


Mel Gooding, Gillian Ayres, Lund Humphries, Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2001, illustrated p.63;
Martin Gayford and David Cleaton-Roberts, Gillian Ayres, Art Books Publishing Ltd, London, 2017, illustrated p.81.

Catalogue Note

The Gillian Ayres exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings in 2012, consisting entirely of her early work from the mid-to late 1950s and including the incredible mural cycle executed in 1957 for South Hampstead High School, was quite simply a revelation. Hung sparsely in the gallery’s new, minimal space – all concrete floor and smooth bare walls – it was like entering an American museum show, or more accurately, like walking in to a Manhattan loft studio and having the best of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler laid out before your eyes.  The comparison of Ayres to such artists is both accurate (given they were working at the same time) but also entirely relevant, based on the sheer quality and expressive power of Ayres’ work from the late 1950s and early 1960s, of which Nimbus is one of the finest examples.  Like Mitchell and Frankenthaler, Ayres, too, has (unfairly) played second fiddle to her male counterparts in the narrative of British abstraction of the post-war period – that is until recently, as art historians, museums and collectors look to redress this gender imbalance. Just as American museums now see Mitchell or Frankenthaler as essential to any display of Abstract Expressionism, so the Tate, in the last few iterations of the hang at Tate Britain, have hung the magnificent Break-Off amongst the work of Ayres’ peers – Robyn Denny (with whom she taught at Corsham School of Art), Richard Smith, David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro.

Nimbus is in many ways the sister painting of Break-Off, painted in the same year. Conceived, very deliberately, on an ‘American’ scale, it shares the same expansive framework; the same courage of gesture; the same beautiful balance of colour, somewhere between the bright, shiny surfaces of Pop and the more sombre, metaphysical palette of Abstract Expressionism. And in both works, the forms float against the off-white ‘ground’, creating an ethereal space and slow movement, yet the drips and splats draw the eye back to the surface, asserting the painting’s ‘object-ness’, as required by Clement Greenberg.

Essential to Ayres’ technique in this period is her highly experimental use of oil paint and household gloss (ripolin) simultaneously within a single work, creating surfaces that are alternately deep and superficial. When one thinks of gloss, one thinks more of Gary Hume and the ‘YBAs’ of the early 1990s, but the likes of Ayres and Denny – the original YBAs in many ways – incorporated the shiny, brittle finish gloss into their work (also embracing the accidents this fickle material can create when it dries). Applied straight from the tin, it has the effect of placing their art in the ‘real’ world. 

Perhaps in her later years, Gillian Ayres suffered something similar to Bridget Riley’s experience in the 90s – where the significance of her 60s work was widely acknowledged and yet the fact that she was still working left her something in limbo between being seen as a ‘Modern’ or ‘Contemporary’ artist. It is only relatively recently that Riley’s current output has been allowed to co-exist with the appreciation and understanding of her historical work. For Ayres, who was working until the very last, despite her ill-health, this sort of recognition, sadly, will come after her death, but when it comes it will be richly deserved. Works such as Nimbus are clearly important way-markers in the history of British art, in the history of women artists in British art, and in the dialogue between British abstraction of the 50s and 60s with the best of what was being made in Europe and, in particular, America.