CONTROVERSIAL curator and artist William Gear made enemies for introducing Eastbourne to abstract art.

His actions did not buy him favours in the town at the time, but now his work and dogged determination is celebrated and explored in two exhibitions.

The abstract painter made waves during his six years as Towner Gallery’s curator between 1958 and 1964. His own work was also controversial.

His arrival in Eastbourne in 1958 was met with a mixed response and he soon caused outrage with his art.

But His work added to the diversity and modernity of the permanent collection with his acquisitions. These included paintings by major British abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s as well as prints.

The Argus:

Not everyone was pleased with his appointment – especially after he started picking art on the town’s behalf.

One councillor was known to brand one acquisition – Harold Mockford’s representation of Eastbourne – as “decadent,” adding that “any artist with anything about him at all could do that in two hours.”

Others likened the landscape painting to a “snow-covered slag heap”.

A Radical View – open to the public for free until August – marks Gear’s time at the gallery and combines key purchases which demonstrate the important role he played in the venue’s history.

And The Painter That Britain Forgot, looking at his own work to mark the centenary of his birth, runs until the end of September.

A Radical View features newspaper cuttings and angry letters to editors of the local press. One about his 1959 exhibition on English contemporary art said “such daubs must have been painted by persons with very depraved minds” and asked if Gear imagined any right-thinking citizen of Eastbourne wanted to look at the efforts of a bunch of “teddy boys?”

The Argus:

Despite this, the son of a Fife coal miner had a streak of stubbornness about him and was not put off. During his employment at the gallery, his acquisitions included work by Sandra Blow, Edward Burra, Alan Davie, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Edward Wadsworth.

The collection prompted The Observer to note his success in 1962 of building Towner’s reputation, hailing it as the “most go-ahead municipal gallery of its size in the country”.

His work was done by 1964 when he left for a job as the head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art. The town had the foundations of a collection of 20th century British art which it would later come to treasure.

The Painter That Britain Forgot shows 100 of Gear’s own paintings and prints, which represents his belief that British galleries desperately needed to modernise. He is little known now but At the time, his work frequently found its way into national collections, with this exhibition featuring loans from the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland.

When he studied at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s a fellow student described him as “alone amongst his peers in pursuing his own work to the point of pure abstraction”.

He travelled through Europe and in Paris he saw Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica and studied under French painter Fernand Léger. In Turkey, he visited the Byzantine mosaics he was so interested in and in 1940, he was called up and posted in the Middle East, where he continued to work as an artist using spare vehicle paint.

Later on After moving back to Britain, he created Autumn Landscape in response to an Arts Council invitation for its Sixty Paintings for a ’51 show.

The Argus:

When he was awarded £500 as the Festival of Britain purchase prize, chancellor Hugh Gaitskell was asked why a “hard-pressed nation” was wasting its money on "this rubbish".

Gear is said to have disliked the debate but it made him famous and became one of his best-known works.

A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958–64, a free exhibition, is on display at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until August 31. A second exhibition, William Gear 1915-97: The Painter That Britain Forgot, runs until September 27.

For more information please call 01323 434670.