Gillian Ayres OBE

Antony and Cleopatra


In Tate Britain

Gillian Ayres OBE 1930–2018
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2893 x 2872 mm
frame: 2941 x 2922 x 75 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

'Anthony and Cleopatra' was painted in the artist's studio at Llaniestyn, North Wales in the winter of 1981-2. It contrasts with the densely worked surfaces of her paintings during the 1970s. Ayres has explained that she wanted to achieve a sense of the sublime through the scale of markings. It also differs from other paintings of the early 1980s in having a yellow ochre ground rather than a white ground. The reason for this was that she was snowed in for several days and was unable to purchase any white lead. As usual, the title was given after the painting was completed. Ayres's titles do not describe the subject of the paintings. Rather the titles have a 'resonance' which relates to the character of each work.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas 114 1/4 × 113 5/16 (2893 × 2872)
Inscribed ‘Gillian Ayres’ b.r.
Purchased from Knoedler Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Gillian Ayres, Knoedler Gallery, April–May 1982 (20, as ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’); Gillian Ayres, Serpentine Gallery, November 1983–January 1984 (17, as ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’)
Lit: Tim Hilton, introduction to Gillian Ayres, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, November 1983–January 1984, p.16 as ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’

The following entry is based upon a conversation between the compiler and the artist held on 8 April 1986 and has been approved by the artist.

The title of T03458, like all those of Ayres's recent works, was conceived after the painting was completed. The titles of her paintings are thought up by a group of four people, sometimes individually and sometimes in combinations, namely Gareth Williams, Tim Hilton, John Kasmin and the artist herself. The title of T03458 was suggested by Tim Hilton while the work was being hung at the Knoedler Gallery in April 1982. In all cases any title suggested must be approved by the artist before it is allocated. Ayres considers the naming of a work to be ‘like a christening. I like the titles and I care about them but they do not describe the paintings.’ The titles have a resonance and refer to things to which Ayres warms.

T03458 was painted in the artist's studio at Llaniestyn, North Wales during the winter of 1981–2. Ayres had moved to Wales that winter having given up her post as Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art. She felt liberated by this action and elated at the prospect of being able to paint every day. She was also excited at the openness and the light of the Welsh landscape. The painting does not refer to landscape, however. She stated that ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ has a greater openness than previous paintings and that she wanted to achieve a sense of the sublime through the scale of markings. She felt, at the time, that ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was an important painting but she now considers it to have a character all of its own within her oeuvre. Unlike other paintings of this period, it has a yellow ochre ground, the reason being that she had no white lead at the time and was unable to purchase any because she was snowed in for a number of days.

T03458 is executed in oil paint, a medium Ayres has used consistently since renouncing the use of acrylic paint in 1977. Her first oil paintings of this period were thickly impastoed, the paint being built up to a great density and being heavily worked. Many of the paintings made between 1978 and 1980 had an iridescent quality. Since 1981, however, she has produced both thickly and thinly painted works and T03458 falls into the latter category. It was directly preceded by ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ 1981 (repr. Gillian Ayres: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, October–November 1981, p.8), a thinly painted work which introduced lines and enclosed shapes into Ayres's vocabulary. In T03458 these take the form of broad sweeps of colour juxtaposed with short and sharply accented curves. In addition, the frieze-like markings at the top of ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ are repeated along the top and bottom of T03458.

T03458 was painted on canvas fixed to the wall and was stretched only on completion. It is larger than a number of Ayres's previous works, the reason being that her studio in North Wales is larger than the studio she left behind in London. It was the first painting she began and completed after her move to North Wales.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986



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