The course of Tristram Hillier’s life was changed completely by a moment of happy revelation in 1925, when the supervising cashier at the London accounting firm where he was briefly employed, having noticed his employee’s preference for drawing doodles all day instead of attending to fiscal duties, took the young man aside for a chat:
‘You’ll never make a chartered accountant, Mr. Hillier, nor any sort of business man, come to that …’ I says to my Missus last night ‘e’s an artist, that’s what ’e is’. ‘Course ’e is’, says she, ‘and you ought to tell ’im so. It’s a wicked waste, that’s what it is’, she says.1The tale is recounted with charming self-deprecation in the artist’s mid-career autobiography. See Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose. An Autobiography, Longmans, Green, London, 1954, p. 66.
Heeding the old cashier’s words, Hillier undertook full-time study at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 1926, where his exuberant amateur doodles were honed into something greater than he could have imagined by the academic severity of his life-drawing master, the revered Professor Henry Tonks. He continued his art studies at night, at the Westminster School of Art, London, under the modernist teacher Bernard Meninsky, whose interest in abstract and geometric art the young Hillier applied to his own work at the Slade, causing Tonks to accuse him of corrupting his classes with ‘obscene nonsense’.2ibid. p. 73. Following his break with Tonks, he took Meninsky’s advice and visited Paris, studying in 1928–30 with the former Cubist André Lhote, and parrying his art against the vivid impact of contemporary French artists Picasso, Matisse and the Surrealists. Surviving works by Hillier from the late 1920s and 1930s, echoing his study of the Surrealist paintings of both Giorgio de Chirico and Yves Tanguy, blend closely observed objects, mainly flotsam-like debris, with forlornly undulating landscape vistas (such as École communale, 1932, Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering, Northamptonshire). In 1937 Hillier and his wife Leda Hardcastle travelled together through Italy and northern Europe, and Hillier studied fifteenth-century Italian and Flemish old-master painting. The solid, timeless hyperreality he admired in the altarpieces of Robert Campin, Rogier van de Weyden and Petrus Christus awakened Hillier to what Nicholas Usherwood has called ‘the mystery of inanimate objects’.3Nicholas Usherwood, A Timeless Journey: Tristram Hillier 1905–1983, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, 1983, p. 14. What followed was a fundamental shift in the artist’s approach to his craft, a ‘period of transition from abstraction and surrealism to representational painting’. He recalled:
I started to paint landscape again, not in my earlier manner en plein air, but attempting to construct my pictures, from rough drawings which I would elaborate in the studio, in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters whose work I had recently had so much opportunity of studying.4Hillier, p. 151.
After 1945 Hillier settled in Somerset, in south-west England, where he devoted himself to painting landscapes evoking the essential strangeness that lies just beneath the surface of observed reality. Intense reflection on life’s mysteries prompted him, in 1946, to re-embrace the Catholic faith.
In 1931, during a hiking trip with friends across the Pyrenees, Tristram Hillier wrote:
[I] had my first glimpse of Spain which seemed to me like a return to China … No grass, no trees, but only rock and tawny earth that stretched away to the shimmering horizon like a lion’s pelt.5ibid. p. 109.
He especially loved the translucent light found in the country’s south, which he felt was invested with ‘a dramatic quality, both noble and cruel’.6ibid. p. 139. His Spanish landscapes, like Andalusian farm, 1949, are charged with electric energy and poised in breathless and eerie suspension, displaying what critic G. S. Whittet called ‘an atmosphere of coldness and desertion that rather belies their locale’.7G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 141, no. 695, February 1951, p. 61. The surreal stillness of Hillier’s Spanish paintings stems in part from the artist’s meticulous working methods. While based on sketches drawn from life, his landscapes were created in the studio; typically, up to six different preparatory grounds were painted onto each canvas before Hillier commenced work on a subject, the underlying layers being repeatedly sanded back and dried over a six-month period. After applying a final ground, which was tinted a warm grey or flesh tone, he drew in the composition completely with a sable brush and white paint diluted with turpentine. Finally, the colour was applied; again he used sable to achieve his characteristically polished surfaces in which there are few discernible brushstrokes.8For a description by Hillier of his methods, see Usherwood, p. 17.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Text adapted from Modern Britain 1900–1960, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007
The tale is recounted with charming self-deprecation in the artist’s mid-career autobiography. See Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose. An Autobiography, Longmans, Green, London, 1954, p. 66.
ibid. p. 73.
Nicholas Usherwood, A Timeless Journey: Tristram Hillier 1905–1983, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, 1983, p.14.
Hillier, p. 151.
ibid. p. 109.
ibid. p. 139.
G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 141, no. 695, Feb. 1951, p. 61.
For a description by Hillier of his methods, see Usherwood, p. 17.