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'Funnily enough, one was always pushing for modernism’ – Van Gogh still being a bit radical in 1940s Britain. ’ This exposure to Post-Impressionism was supplemented by cycle rides to the National Gallery where, during the war, one picture a month was displayed.
'The four who set me off were really bloody good, they really were. 'Looking at whatever you ruddy could which was around, that’s all really,’ Ayres says. I was always just looking and painting – asking for oil paints at Christmas.
Though not so well-known by the general public as contemporaries such as Howard Hodgkin, she has had the accolade of a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy and there are no fewer than 14 of her pictures in the Tate Collection, including the wonderful Distillation (1957), among the most powerful and lyrical abstract paintings ever produced by a British artist.
In 1962 she made a statement about how she thought of the canvas 'as a whole image and space – an essence – perhaps like the space a sailor of Magellan’s would have felt when the world was flat and he had sailed off the edge.’ That’s more or less how she still feels, though her work is very different. It’s got to work.’ To do it, she has taken quite a few risks.
In 1981, at 51, she gave up her job as the head of painting at Winchester School of Art (she was the first woman in Britain to hold such a post), and left London.
She was the youngest of three daughters of a prosperous couple in Barnes, the foundation of the family fortunes being a factory in Soho that made peaked caps for motorists.
There was a strain of audacity in the genes, however, since one of her grandmothers had left her farmer husband and lived openly with her lover, a playboy pal of Edward VII’s.