Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
David J Markham
Painter, Arts Critic, Photographer
10:10 AM 2nd January 2018

The Opposite Sides Of A Very English Artist - William Tillyer

William Tillyer - Work in Progress 2017
William Tillyer - Work in Progress 2017
This is not an academic appraisal of a unique English artist and it does not pretend to prescribe in depth the creative arc this man has travelled over nearly 80 years. I will leave that to others. The following text explores, with pace, a life dedicated to art and we discuss the notion that art is not only what you look at but how you think about it and how you respond to it as a viewer in a given situation. I could have spoken to this particular artist all day about his approach to making art. He's undoubtedly the real deal.

Who is he? His name is William Tillyer and 2018 is the 80th anniversary of his birth. I suspect we will be hearing a lot about Tillyer during the course of the coming year. He was born, bred, lives and works in North Yorkshire.

It's early November and I'm driving north of Helmsley on the winding roads of the North York Moors National Park. Autumn has brought with it an array of golden hues that dapple the forests adjacent to the road. The low hanging cloud begins to disperse as I wind through the hills and the blue sky starts to peep through the clouds random apertures. Shafts of sunlight laser the rich green squares of the fields below. This landscape and these fields have been shaped by time. Tillyer was born in the industrial town of Middlesbrough and he cycled out to this softly rolling countryside as a boy. Contrast has sustained him ever since. The notion of opposites. Hard and soft, dark and light, large and small, organic and man-made etc. It's a breathtaking drive. North Yorkshire at its best.

William Tillyer - Studio, North Yorkshire 2017
William Tillyer - Studio, North Yorkshire 2017
I am greeted by William at his studio and we walk into the attached office. His office is ordered. It has the feel of an IT manager's office. Books abound. It's contemporary. Minimalist. A room that allows for clear thinking. There are 2 small rails on the walls and they span the room. On each rail there are 5 or 6 small photographs of work from each decade of his career - they serve as a sort of torch - to walk us through Williams body of work. It's a useful reference point for our conversation. Classical music was playing in the background and we exchange some points of view about our preferred choice of music. I'm from the punk generation and I stumble over the justification for it. It could only ever become a cul de sac. William makes a reference to Johnny Rotten not lasting for long and we laugh - it's a useful ice breaker for both of us and he turns the music off.

There is a simplicity to his thinking but behind the veil is a complexity and depth of thought I've seldom witnessed in the art world. It's a fascinating insight into the mind of one of this country's greatest artists.

I read an interview with Damien Hirst once and I remember him saying that in the art class at school there was always one child who was the best drawer in the class who everyone else was trying to live up to - was that you?

That's true - in primary school particularly. As you get older you become known as not just the best drawer but the best artist in the class and yes that was me - I could always draw - it was the one thing I was kind of good at and interested in. That just seemed to go on and on until the crunch came when school was about to finish and you have to decide what you're going to do after school - as everybody must do - and so I decided, as I was still interested in drawing, I would go to art school.

And that was in Middlesbrough?

We're talking about the late forties and fifties - I started school during the war as an infant. In 1955/56 I applied to the local art school. The great thing about Britain at that time was that almost every town of any size had an art school which they don't now. I come from Middlesbrough - 12 miles north of here - and there was an art school there so I went there for 4 years - it was fantastic. Strangely I still know many of the students who were there at the time in 1956 and I met up with some of them recently and in fact my own wife was one of them. Then I got a place at the Slade School.

Did any of your contemporaries pursue art as an occupation too?

Nobody ever talked about how you were going to make a living. It was fairly airy fairy - "I'm going to be an artist" - nobody had a clue how on earth you would do that. If you had lots of wonderful contacts or perhaps a lot of money - and I had neither - then you might be able to make it. Many artists have said that at that particular period - to be an artist was something you did if you had family money to support you. Nevertheless one went strangely on blindly thinking something will turn up and you will make it somehow.

The move from Middlesbrough to London and the Slade School of Art - were you prepared for it?

Yes - I was very excited by it. It was a total change of life - a different place. I'd been to London on trips before to see exhibitions and things but to be actually there, on your own to work, was amazing. I did that for the next 2 or 3 years and then went to Paris for a year on a French Government scholarship to study printmaking with a guy called William Hayter. That was exciting as well. Still no sign of making any money though. It was all done on grants and the amazing thing in the 50's and 60's was that you could get a government grant and then a French government grant! Not like today.

How did you find the Slade and particularly William Coldstream?

He was the Professor. He was a fairly remote figure in a way. I didn't have any real connection to his method of painting. The dot and carry method. It was very restricting. There wasn't an awful lot of space within that method to create. I was out of kilter with that view. The opposite view at the Slade at the same time was the David Bomberg school and although he was dead - lots of people were trying to paint like him - it spawned people like Frank Auerbach and so on. A brown mud palette with lots and lots of impasto paint. I was out of sympathy with that too - so I didn't find anything at the Slade that attracted me really. The whole Slade thing was based on life drawing and life painting - so we spent days and hours in the life room. That's what we spent our time doing apart from trying to keep our own personal work going.

Was your personal work different to your academic work at that point in time?

Beach and Sea Seaton Carew, 1956
Beach and Sea Seaton Carew, 1956
Yes. It wasn't Coldstream and it wasn't Bomberg. It was something that I'd concocted in Middlesbrough. I'd moved to London but you still think in the same way. You take that with you. Some of the work I was doing in 1959 carried over to 1960 in London. After leaving the Slade and finishing in Paris - I struggled to continue the work as I had to take on other jobs.

So you started in oils?

Yes. Fairly straight landscape painting. I was taken with the landscape around here in North Yorkshire and the beaches. For example - I painted the beach at Seaton Carew. It's at the northern corner of the River Tees. It's semi industrialised now - actually it always was. That work radically evolved.

You make quite a radical shift between 1956 and the mid 60's towards conceptual art.

Yes. Obviously - I was thinking very hard about what I was painting even while I was in Middlesbrough but it changed quite radically in the '60's when I was living in London. Not immediately as a student but a little later on - certainly 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966. I started doing what are now considered to be very early conceptual or minimalist works - those terms weren't current or had even been coined at the time. It became a whole school.

Were you painting concurrently at that point in time or were you going down a constructionist route?

I've always considered it painting whatever it is. The physical element in the work started to gain momentum away from the traditional canvas. I'd always wanted that. In the '60's I'd been able to achieve that. Right up to the present where although they look like conventional paintings they are very open to the wall. I work on a very open mesh. I'd made some monochrome prints and sold a couple to Bernard Jacobson who was dealing in prints at the time - based on a hard lattice grid. Around 1980 I found a sort of metal mesh version of the lattice that was very physical and open to the wall. It was a great release for me because I was doing something physical.

Physical in terms of the construction process?

Well the materials were physical. It was a mesh so it was open to the wall unlike a traditional canvas. You weren't dealing with an illusion on a canvas - you were dealing with reality. I would say it was the biggest find and release in my entire career - in 1978.

Studio Shelf with Circle 27, 1978
Studio Shelf with Circle 27, 1978

It feels almost trail blazing now - never mind in the 1960's - was it hard to find a market for the work?

Well there wasn't really a market. I was working with Bernard Jacobson with prints in the 60's and I said to Bernard why don't you get into painting which of course he eventually did. He's my exclusive worldwide dealer to this day. He's been very supportive of me over many years. He's doing a number of shows with me during 2018 to celebrate my 80th birthday. My career has spanned wire mesh - hard, metallic, minimal and then there is the other side which is about space, beach, sky etc. I'm somewhere in between. I like to see myself between two bookends. I want to be the book in the middle.

You spent sometime in the USA - tell me about that.

I've been a few times yes. I first went to New York in 1973 with Bernard and then later Los Angeles to work. It was quite early on for me. I made lots of lithographs in Los Angeles. The big thing in Los Angeles then were people like Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell and so on. Bernard had met these people. I spent a little bit of time with Ruscha. I remember flying to San Francisco from Los Angeles for an exhibition of his and then again when he was over in London. I've got to know Larry Bell much more because he was with the Bernard Jacobson Gallery before he moved to White Cube. The first trip in 1973 was on a shoe string but we managed to work with a really good printer called Cirrus in Los Angeles.

Do you have any influences?

Although I'm aware of so much stuff going on I tend to just go ahead and do my own thing. There are obviously some things you look at and possibly some things are of interest and they may influence your work but I can't honestly say one particular artist influenced me. I was trying to do something that I didn't see anybody else doing or existed. In retrospect, certain Italians were making quite physical pieces in collage and of course the name Fontana comes up quite a bit when he was cutting his canvases. If you look at the work, there is a cut in the canvas but you never see through the canvas to the wall - the wall is never a part of the image. The cut of the canvas almost becomes like a pencil drawing - it has some physicality but you don't go through it. For me the important thing is to go through the picture plane to the wall and incorporate it all as a physical entity.

Why is that important?

If you think about painting way back - even pre-renaissance, for example, up until the end of the 19th century - the canvas or the panel was always a receptacle. A surface on which to put an image. It didn't really play a part in the image and one put an illusion on it. Creating space by illusion. Then some artists in the 20th century wanted to incorporate not only the wall but the space in the gallery too. The panel or canvas became physical - part of the image as well. It was more than simply a support. It's all encompassing. The physicality - you as a viewer, the gallery, the wall, the painting.

That notion has sustained you for a long time hasn't it?

All my life. From 1964. I started using hardware and the mesh happened when I wanted to find an equivalent to the etchings I'd sold to Bernard. Prior to that I was using things like hinges and handles. They dictated the way you would approach things and read the work. I was confounding the use of bits of hardware. If you put these things in an odd situation you might not know what it was for. There is a confrontation between what you know and what you see.

When did watercolour enter your repertoire of mediums?

It was the late '70's/early '80's and it was about a need to keep on drawing but I wanted to draw with colour and I liked water. I liked the whole idea of using very heavy impasto paint and to confound that - to go to the complete opposite - which is basically a bucket of water with a bit of colour in it. Something very thin, very transparent rather than opaque. A total contrast.

Watercolour is just magical for being able to create one book end of my career - the kind of romantic figurative, landscape kind of images. The English watercolour school is great - people like Cotman, obviously Turner and numerous artists of the Norwich school where watercolour is supreme in terms of matching the English landscape. In a way - you invoke that history by using watercolour. I now make a lot of watercolours.

Palmer's Air no. 3 & no. 4 2012
Palmer's Air no. 3 & no. 4 2012

I'm interested in the way you incorporate quite hard geometric shapes into your watercolours.

Geometry is always important because I feel it counters my organic marks. If you take water and splash it around - it's loose and organic. The opposite is something very precise and defined. As I keep saying - I like the contrast - it's like two cogwheels that mesh - it's where they interact. It makes for a split personality. I'm very comfortable in that space. The important thing always for a writer or musician or artist - is to know what you are about so you have something to express. Something you are always trying to reach. If you don't know what you are reaching for you are going to miss it.

Do you see yourself as an abstractionist?

It's definitely part of the story. Although I talk about the landscape - very rarely do I paint a particular detail of a field or tree or a sky. Maybe the colour or a shape is enough. You reduce things. In reducing you abstract - you take away an element. To be absolutely abstract is very difficult and tough. You're always trying to get to something and you never know if you've got there. It's often in retrospect that you can see things - you come back to it and see it for what it is - either wow that's great or bloody hell what a mess - ha ha.

You must be profoundly influenced by the north Yorkshire Moors in some fashion?

Work in progress - North Yorkshre, 2017
Work in progress - North Yorkshre, 2017
As I said much earlier - I was born in Middlesbrough and Middlesbrough is sort of a curious town. It's different to other Yorkshire towns like Bradford and Leeds and Huddersfield etc where they are all kind of joined up - you're never quite sure which town you are in - there's no real space between them. Middlesbrough is a comparatively new town in industrial terms and is fortunate that it's surrounded by some great countryside.

Growing up in Middlesbrough in the '50's was pretty awful in terms of air quality. There was a big ICI plant here. The air quality was dreadful - it looked yellow - you could cut it. So we used to get out into the country. Again - it's like the two bookends. It's between town and country. The geometric shapes reference the urban element against the more organic landscape. Sometimes that can confuse people. I'm very happy to be in the middle using both references.

Are you still working as hard today as you ever have?

Probably harder. With the coming year being so busy. We're starting in January. The paintings in the studio will be shown. I hope I'll see you there.

I turn the recorder off and we break for coffee. We walk into the studio and it's only now that I think William truly relaxes and begins to open up about his process. He appears more comfortable. More at ease in his natural habitat. This is what it's all about for him - his work.

There is a huge installation of 5 meshes adorned with slabs of green and blue acrylic. It's a work in progress for the forthcoming show in January. The mesh hangs from the ceiling and sits a few feet away from the wall. The hanging of the mesh allows him to work from behind the support and push paint through to the front to create the work. The mesh is hard and resistant and the paint is soft - it serves, amongst other things, as a sort of metaphor for life. The struggle of man. The importance of being able to see the wall through the support is critical. To many a viewer this may seem odd but to William it's a self-evident, integral part of the work.

He speaks of the most traditional subject matter for an artist to paint - a vase and a bunch of flowers. It's been painted since time immemorial. Where the hard juxtaposes the soft. It is this very notion that has sustained Tillyer for a lifetime. Opposites. He does not want to be one thing or the other - he wants to do what he pleases and for him - he needs to travel the path from one bookend to another. His work is fresh and dynamic. The scale before me of this contemporary work is significant and for practical reasons it's difficult to go any higher in his studio. I comment that it is so alive, so fresh and so dynamic, that without being disrespectful, it could almost have been conceptualised and executed by a much younger man. William seemed amused by this and thanks me. Creativity is clearly not the sole preserve of youth and probably never has been.

We make our way back into the office and William asks me if I want to turn the recorder back on to continue the interview. I say thanks but no - with my daughter back from University - I really had to go. I could have stayed for hours and I felt like I didn't need to turn the recorder on to capture any further conversation. I've said it before but sometimes it happens that way - when the recorder is set to off - that's when the magic happens. When the real insight is unveiled.

In our current society of celebrity - William Tillyer does not register. He does not frequent the latest restaurant or gallery openings but in artistic terms he is at the very top of the mountain. Bernard Jacobson believes William Tillyer is Britain's finest painter - the best in watercolour since Turner and Cotman.

I've wrestled with this thought for nearly two months and I think he may well be right. Tillyer is so much more than a 'one trick pony'. His watercolours undoubtedly punctuate the history of the genre and his mesh pieces are up there as signature pieces - comparable with Ruscha's words, Bacon's twisted forms and Freud's grotesque slabs of flesh.

I'm convinced that art history will look kindly on Tillyer. His body of work will speak for itself. I'm reminded from a previous interview that I undertook for The Yorkshire Times of the Irish artist Guggi - that artists should be like Victorian children - they should be seen and not heard. They should let the work speak on their behalf. He may have been around for 80 years but his work rate shows no sign of slowing down and he continues to bring new and fresh ideas to a world that needs originality more than ever.

Don't opposites always attract?

There is currently a Cotman exhibition running at the fabulously revitalised Leeds City Art Gallery - Shelter from the Storm - until January 2018. It's a beautifully curated exhibition of Cotman drawings and watercolours.
Bernard Jacobson Gallery will hold a year of William Tillyer exhibitions through 2018 beginning with William Tillyer:Radical Vision - January 11th – 3rd February and 21 Publishing are to publish a book about William Tillyer written by Bernard Jacobson in September 2018.