Born into a mining family in Fife, Scotland in 1915, Gear studied at the Edinburgh College of Art. At the outbreak of the Second World War, William Gear left behind his coal mining family in Edinburgh to work in the Middle East as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals. Through his determination and creative stamina he found time, aside from his duties, to paint and organise exhibitions of his work in Jerusalem, Cairo, Sienna and Florence.
In 1947, when peace brought hope of a united Europe and most soldiers had been demobbed, Gear returned to Paris where ten years before he had studied with Fernand Léger. He lived for nearly three years in an attic studio at 13 Quai des Grands Augustins, near Notre Dame Cathedral.
Gear’s first one-man exhibition was at the Galerie Arc en Ciel in February 1948. The same year he was introduced to the avant-garde group of artists known as CoBrA, a name reflecting the nationalities of its non-French members from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. The group sought to use surrealism to new ends also drawing inspiration from Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joan Miró, combined with the primitive, prehistoric Viking art of Northern Europe. The group’s most striking works are their fantastic animal beings with precise black lines, bright glistening colours, and violent brushwork, in undefined space.
William Gear’s own vibrant, linear abstracts, inspired by Middle Eastern stained glass, calligraphy, Islamic rugs and “war-blasted” landscapes, combined with the strong contrasts of tone and colour in Léger’s own work, were immediately noticed by the group. He was invited to exhibit in the exhibition of Drawings and Gouaches by Foreign Comrades in March 1949.
In 1950, William Gear was one of the 54 artists invited by the Arts Council to paint a large picture for the following year’s Festival of Britain. His painting Autumn Landscape was awarded one of the three Festival of Britain purchase prizes.