A view of artist Gerald Wilde from the abyss

Photograph of Gerald Wilde by Gilbert Cousland, 1955. Picture: Jonathan Greet

Photograph of Gerald Wilde by Gilbert Cousland, 1955. Picture: Jonathan Greet - Credit: Archant

Alison Oldham looks at the intensely private but self-destructive painter who was hailed a genius by John Berger but never gained his deserved reputation due to unreliability.

Pompeii 1975 by Gerald Wilde. Picture: Jonathan Greet

Pompeii 1975 by Gerald Wilde. Picture: Jonathan Greet - Credit: Archant

Corinna MacNeice’s spirited introduction to From the Abyss, an exhibition of paintings by Gerald Wilde at the October Gallery, begins by reversing the usual process of definition by first stating what the artist was not. False beliefs include his being related to Oscar Wilde and the model for the drunken, disreputable bohemian artist Gulley Jimson in Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth.

In fact, Cary first met Wilde six years after the novel was published and the fictional artist was unlike the real one in many respects, though not in their penury, outrageous behaviour or love of drink.

“Gerald was an intensely sensitive and private individual,” says MacNeice. “He had an exceptionally light grasp on the material world: clothes, money, living conditions, food – none of these held any interest for him whilst walking the tightrope over the abyss, in thrall to his vision.”

She came to know him well when she was Artistic Director of this adventurous gallery in Bloomsbury which launched in 1979 with a Wilde exhibition and has held six shows since. In her foreword to the catalogue she recalls “Of the warm welcome he received at that first show Gerald later wrote ‘It is the only time I have felt inside the situation and not outside of it all.’”

Many reasons have been suggested for the imbalance between his talent and reputation. One is that when on a self-destructive binge, he would give away or sell for a pittance paintings that were destined for major shows and spend cash given for materials, making him a nightmare for dealers and curators. Another is that his work never chimed with the styles prevalent in post-war Britain.

Nevertheless he won the admiration of fellow artists such as Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, was in many prestigious group exhibitions including the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, and venues for solo shows include the ICA in 1955 and the Serpentine in 1977. Influential critic John Berger praised Wilde’s paintings for “their conviction and amazing strength of line, devouring colour and interlocking shapes”, and concludes that “we think - however rashly – of the word genius”.

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Wilde (1905-1986) was born in Clapham and worked in a solicitor’s office before attending Chelsea School of Art where lecturers Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland recognised his gift and became life-long friends. In an authoritative essay Dr Victoria King describes the early work as showing his affinity with Baudelaire and the decadents: “The figures in his artworks nihilistically inhabit un-romanticized city scenes and aggressively fluid ink and gouache drawings assert a defiance of bourgeois concerns.”

It is believed much work was destroyed in the Blitz but From the Abyss includes a melancholy gouache The Brown Bedroom from 1939. His second period, for which he is best remembered, is well represented. It covers the 1940s and 50s when, says King, “Highly charged colours and lyrical line work merge to produce expressionistic figurative and abstract compositions.”

Critic David Sylvester noted the tempestuous and complex rhythms and forces that hurl themselves through some of these paintings: “Centrifugal forces, centripetal forces, diagonal rhythms, swirly rhythms, jagged rhythms, queasy undulating rhythms…”

Despite Wilde’s much quoted claim “My life may be miserable but I am not”, in the mid 50s he became so haunted by depression and perceived neglect by the art establishment that he was unable to express himself on canvas or paper, even to produce the single work required for continuance of an Arts Council grant.

He was shocked out of infertility when his death was reported in the press in 1970 after police found a body outside the South London house where he had a room. He regarded his future life as a bonus, not to be misused. Wilde went to live with his patron, the mathematician and philosopher John G Bennett, at Sherborne House in Gloucestershire and began producing metaphysical works with colour and line in new and unexpected combinations.

From the Abyss has marvellous examples, including works from the Pompeii sequence which elicit an ecstatic response from writer Cherry Smyth in her catalogue essay: “The works deliver the effect of listening to a piece of music that can both comfort and overwhelm. Each has the recurring bulwarks at the sides of the frame and more anarchic movement within them as Wilde expresses the pull of wave pattern and resistance to it. Again he uses the slightly exploded hieroglyphics or calligraphic signs of his own devising. Is this surge of lava a deluge that is not entirely unwelcome, like love?” Until January 30 at 24 Old Gloucester Street WC1, Tuesday to Saturday 12.30pm to 5.30pm. octobergallery.co.uk