© Estate of Gillian Ayres RA CBE


Gillian Ayres (1930 – 2018)


Accession number


Many of Gillian Ayres’ paintings took titles from Greek myths and from the world of opera, and it was obvious that she looked to such sources for strength, drama and passion, qualities she admired and wished to convey in her paintings. She said of Titian and Rubens, two painters she revered, that they use the medium of painting in the fullest possible way, displaying ‘a complete combination of heart and mind…’ This was something Ayres strove to emulate, and it is notable that this work has the word ‘heart’ in its title. Her acknowledgement of these great painters is reflected in two ways in this work, firstly in the medium chosen, and secondly, in the format. Ayres’ painting career now spans more than five decades, and although she began by painting in oils, she moved on to commercial household paints, especially Ripolin enamel (led in this choice by such mentors as Picasso and Jackson Pollock) and then to acrylic paint, which she used exclusively from the late 1960s to 1977. She then turned back to oil painting, which allowed rich, bold, rough and vibrant application.

The circular format of this painting was quite unusual in British art of the time, and referred back to the tondo form of Italian Renaissance art. Painters like Botticelli, Fra Angelico and Michaelangle produced easel paintings of circular form, and were able to demonstrate their talents for containing a figurative composition within a round form. Ayres had a slightly easier task in that her work was non-figurative and related therefore more directly to the unconventional shape of the support. She allowed the natural brown colour of the wooden support (actually a salvaged table top) show through all round the edge, and successfully balanced the emphasis given to the edge of the painting a richly worked and vigorously decorative content. She worked with speed, usually covering the entire ground in one session, and then returned, perhaps after an interval, to apply further layers whose brushwork and colour combined to create a lyrical yet dynamic whole. Even when her work is on a small scale, and this tondo is less than a metre across, it has an expansiveness and energy which stemmed from her experiences of working on a very large scale, beginning with the whole wall of a school dining hall in 1957, and continued with the three to four metre canvases in the 1980s.

A selection of paintings and sculpture; The British Council Collection, The British Council 1984