Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tasteful metaphysics: Tristram Hillier

A first sight, ages ago, of one of Tristram Hillier’s Portugese paintings, a view of the square at Viseu, still sticks with me as a memorable moment of viewing panic. Yes, the “local colour” jug and hat in the foreground are stagey and naff. But beyond their (calculatedly?) misleading invitation, the space opens up ominously, peopled only by hostile and imperceptibly lengthening shadows. After a little while you ask yourself, “Where is everybody?” Siesta doesn’t seem an entirely satisfactory explanation.

Viseu, Portugal 1947

 

At the far end of the wall at the left [click to enlarge] is what appears, at a lazy glance, to be a head and shoulders punctuating the perspective, but it’s only a corner pillar. Our eye moves on towards the vanishing point of the dark church door, where it picks up an echoing bollard and shadow beneath the right hand tower. Or is it a black mantilla’d figure? It’s too frustratingly small for us to say, but its absolute, static isolation is disconcerting.

This was painted in 1947, a long time after Hillier is supposed to have shed his Surrealist cred, but it is still pumped full of de Chirico. And pittura metafisica is surely the strongest borrowing of many in Hillier’s work, which at other points shows shades of Nash, Wadsworth, Magritte or Dali (whom Hillier affected to disdain), with here and there a bit of Ravilious, Michael Ayrton or Rex Whistler, even.

A recent Oxfam acquisition for me is A Timeless Journey, slightly unfortunately titled, but otherwise a decent little catalogue of a Hillier show at Bradford and elsewhere in 1983. (It contains such startling information as: “His father, manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Peking, went blind at the age of thirty and was on the point of shooting himself when persuaded to become a Roman Catholic instead.”) The foreword admits that this exhibition, unexpectedly posthumous after Hillier’s death that January, was “the first serious and comprehensive survey of his whole career”. And a bit of googling suggests that Jenny Pery’s 2008 coffee table study Painter Pilgrim is still
the only real book on the man.

So has Hillier been unfairly neglected? There’s no doubt that many dislike his fall from fellow travelling Surrealism into a kind of baroque English tastefulness, which threatens to undermine, or even invert, the irony of the enigma – a disalienation, a recuperation of the surreal. This tastefulness seems to have survived the war intact, apparently bypassing the nuclear angst of the Apocalypse movement, into which you’d think Hillier might have slotted rather well.

And then the hard edged pedantic realism of his technique can be very alienating. Magritte used this to make an impossible thing solid, so apparently possible; Hiller uses it to to freeze a probable thing (like a Portugese town square), making it worryingly less so, which is fair enough. But the sheer insistence of it, the relentless sharp focus, is not to everyone’s liking.

 

To my mind, Hillier is at his best in industrial mode, where he’s able to evade the picturesque charm that can colour his marine subjects. In paintings such as Pylons (1933 or 1935), Beach Scene with Radio Masts (1934), or La Route des Alpes (1937), there is a genuine, and oddly attractive, unease, not sugared by whimsy or nostalgia, a real live fear of the impersonal, confronting near-future.

Hillier – neglected?

There’s a lot more to be said about Hillier. Even in his lesser moments, he is always interesting, as a browse of his ArtUK page will prove. I notice that he even painted butterflies in 1955 for a Shell Nature Studies guide – yet another Damien Hirst steal.

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One response to “Tasteful metaphysics: Tristram Hillier

  1. Edward Chaney October 3, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    v nicely done (unlike the latter part of the ArtUK page)… best e

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