Artist William Tillyer on why he is marking his 80th birthday with four exhibitions

William Tillyer may be approaching 80, but as the artist generally found at the top of a stepladder tells Sarah Freeman, he is facing one of his busiest ever years. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

William Tillyer is a creature of habit. Monday to Friday, the artist wakes early and by 10am he will be at his studio on an unremarkable looking industrial estate on the edge of the North York Moors.

After a small cup of strong coffee, he begins work and the next seven hours or so are spent armed with icing bags and large decorating brushes as he pushes paint through a series of large-scale mesh rectangles. The tools of his trade, which also include a couple of pairs of giant stepladders, may be workmanlike, but the results are anything but and while Tillyer is about to turn 80 he remains as prolific as ever.

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“I don’t know what else to do but paint,” he says sitting in his office filled with art books and catalogues of past exhibitions, and there will soon be a few more to add to the collection.

To mark his landmark birthday, London’s Bernard Jacobsen Gallery, which Tillyer has been with since the 1970s, has planned four exhibition of his work and the series will be complemented with the publication of a monograph of his career to date.

“That’s why I put these up,” he says, pointing to a series of images pinned around the office walls. Divided into decades, the prints are an artistic timeline, charting his journey from Middlesbrough to Paris, via the Slade School of Art and finally back to Yorkshire.

“I now only live 12 miles from where I was born, so I suppose I didn’t get very far,” he says with typical modesty for a man who has earned worldwide renown. “But you know it has been interesting to look back and see how my style has changed over the years. It’s important, I think, to know where you came from.”

Tillyer’s parents owned a couple of hardware stores in Middlesbrough, but there was never any pressure to go into the family business and besides he knew where his vocation lay from an early age.

“I was lucky in that I grew up at a time when every town had a decent art college,” he says. “That creative side of education was something which was both encouraged and supported. It was the post-war years and there was a real sense of optimism about the future. To be honest, it never really occurred to me not to do art.

“I know that as everyone approaches their dotage they look back on their early years and tell you how good things were, but I do believe that the 1950s was a golden period.”

After initially studying at Middlesbrough College of Art, Tillyer headed to London and the Slade School. Both, he says, were the making of him as an artist and by the time he found himself in Paris in the early 1960s he had been drilled in what he calls the “business of life drawing”.

“At the Slade we even had anatomy classes, but I am glad I had that grounding. I definitely think it made me a better artist. It is like anything – before you can bend and break them, you have to know the rules.

“It was also at the Slade that I first had the chance to experiment with printmaking. It was because of that I got a scholarship to go to France to study a very particular printing technique at Atelier 17.

“It was quite a special time to be a young artist in Paris. For the 10 years or so after the Second World War it didn’t feel that socially or politically a huge amount changed. By the end of the 1960s everything was different and when I left France in 1963 you could definitely sense that change was coming.”

While Tillyer’s work is often abstract, the inspiration he takes from nature and the Northern landscape is clearly visible and many of his fans within the art establishment have had good cause to wonder why his name is not better known.

Not that he minds. Tillyer has never really courted fame. He prefers instead to let his work do the talking. Currently suspended from the ceiling of his studio is his work in progress – three large mesh panels that have been designed to take over an entire wall of the Bernard Jacobsen Gallery.

“The mesh is something I have been using for years. It adds a layer of texture that you can’t get from a traditional canvas,” he says. “I guess, it has become my trademark.”

So is his depiction of the North York Moors and the landscape of Teesside.

“Quite a few years ago I did painting of High Force on the River Tees. I used a computer to turn it into a digital image and my dream was that it would be used as a blueprint for a tapestry. However, it’s expensive to do and I haven’t yet found anyone to take it on. It wasn’t just a personal project, my hope was that it would become a piece of public art.

“That part of the world gets such a bad press and when it does get a mention in the news it’s because of another factory closing down. However, it’s a place blessed with beautiful countryside and I just wish more people could see that side. Somebody suggested that I should have a look at crowdfunding.”

If no one else gets there first, the High Force Tapestry campaign may be one for Tillyer’s 81st birthday.

■ William Tillyer, A Radical Vision, is at the Bernard Jacobsen Gallery until February 14. It will be followed by William Tillyer – À Rebours, featuring his print work, which runs to March 10. The final two exhibitions will open in May and September.