Walking into the Fellows Drawing Room at Murray Edwards College the first thing you see is a large painting hanging above the fireplace. In most other Oxbridge colleges a painting in this position would probably be a portrait of an eminent master or alumnus but not at Murray Edwards. Founded in the 1950s and formerly known as New Hall, the college prides itself on being a bastion of women’s education and also boasts one of the largest collections of contemporary women’s art in the world. It is fitting that the painting above the fireplace, a riot of pulsating colours, shapes and forms, is by the ‘grande dame’ of British abstraction Gillian Ayres RA OBE.
Gillian Ayres (1930-2018) was born in London and studied at Camberwell School of Art alongside other well known British abstract artists such as Roger Hilton and Howard Hodgkin. Her early work was influenced by Jackson Pollock and American Abstract Expressionism but she went on to develop her own visual language, applying paint with thick impasto, juxtaposing forms and celebrating colour. She has been described as being “besotted by paint - what it felt like physically and what she could do with it. She used her hands, brushes, parts of cardboard boxes and brooms to arrange the vivid images that distinguished her work for more than 60 years”.
The title of the New Hall painting, “Sun, Stars, Dawn” may imply a subject. Are the circular shapes a depiction of the planets? The orange and lilac a reference to the sunrise? Gillian Ayres resisted the call for such explanations: “People like to understand, and I wish they wouldn’t, I wish they’d just look. It’s visual … I don’t want this sort of understanding. There is no understanding.”
The fellows of Murray Edwards College may beg to disagree as they rest from their academic labours to meet in the drawing room, which was recently refurbished with a rug and furniture designed to complement the painting. Surely the need to understand and make sense of the world is an inherent part of our human nature? The art of Gillian Ayres invites us to shake off this perceived wisdom by embracing the visual, enjoying colour for colour’s sake and revelling in the mystery of the unknown.
Gillian Ayres (1930-2018), Sun, Stars, Dawn, 1996, oil on canvas, 198 x 198 cm, New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge; the Fellows Drawing Room at Murray Edwards College.Quotes from Richard Sandomir's obituary in the New York Times, 15th April 2018 and from Gillian Ayres' interview with Jan Dally, FT Life and Arts, 2015
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.