Massive and striking, Frank Avray Wilson’s Maëlstrom (1955-56) is an imposing composition of black and red whirlpools painted in oil across an expansive canvas.
At an impressive 6ft 6in x 11ft 11in (1.97 x 3.64m), it is probably the largest work British artist Avray Wilson (1914-2009) ever produced, but is characteristic of his energetic, abstract style.
The huge, horizontal painting is part of a solo exhibition of previously unseen works taking place at Whitford Fine Art from October 18-November 16 in St James’s, London.
“He is the only true Abstract Expressionist painter in the UK. There is just no one to compare him with,” says Whitford’s Gabriel Toso.
Avray Wilson’s painting style draws on elements of Tachism from Europe and Abstract Expressionist ‘action’ painting from the US, qualities which set him apart from contemporaneous UK painters.
Unlike the rest of the works in the show, Maëlstrom carries a hefty asking price of between £100,000-120,000. Other paintings, though pitched lower than this highlight, are in some cases priced slightly beyond those available on the secondary market.
The auction record for Avray Wilson, according to the Art Sales Index, was set at Christie’s South Kensington in 2012 for his 1957 painting Wish, which made a premium-inclusive of £15,000. Pictures in the exhibition range in price from £3000-45,000. But, the gallery asserts, its selection of the artist’s works is of better calibre than those typically found at auction.
“Some of the auction results do not match our prices but usually these are late works from the 1980s or not of particularly good quality,” says Toso.
“The market remains strong for the early good pieces, which rarely come to auction
Born in Mauritius, Avray Wilson read biology at Cambridge in the 1930s. His geometric, colour-rich pictures have their philosophical origins in his complex interpretations of science and vitalism – the theory that life is dependent on a force distinct from pure chemistry or physics.
During the 1950s and ‘60s he enjoyed widespread popularity and had 12 one-man shows at galleries in London, Paris and Brussels. He exhibited alongside artists such as Lynn Chadwick, William Turnbull and Patrick Heron.
In his later career he concentrated on writing about the role of art in life with titles such as Human Existence as a Whole (1963) and The Work of Creation: Cosmos, Consciousness and the New Sciences (1985).
Then, in the early 1980s, Adrian Mibus, director of Whitford Fine Art, visited Avray Wilson and bought a number of his early works. These were kept out of the public eye until the gallery staged its first solo show of his works in 2016.
“The market remains strong for the early good pieces, which rarely come to auction, as demonstrated by the number of sales at our last exhibition,” Toso adds. “Naturally, we had kept some stunning pieces for a second show.”