Still life to be lived at 75

Artist William Tillyer
Artist William Tillyer
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William Tillyer may be a painter with an international name but he wants to be in the local picture. Words by Michael Hickling. Picture by Tony Bartholomew.

William Tillyer has always followed his own path. This lifetime journey has taken him to international recognition but after 75 years he now hopes to make larger footprints closer to home.

A series of birthday exhibitions, one of them in the country of his heart – the North York Moors – the others in his native Middlesbrough, will bring his name to the attention of a new regional public. At least he hopes so. “I’m not known in the region,” he says. “My career has been in London and abroad.”

He’s a contemporary of another Yorkshire artist of worldwide renown, David Hockney, and the pair of them studied in London in the early 1960s. Hockney, however, lived his flamboyant student days at the Royal College of Art in the glare of publicity. Tillyer, at the Slade School of Fine Art, did not. Today, despite his eminence in the art world, he probably would not be recognised walking through Middlesbrough.

In the mid-1950s this was not the best place to start from for anyone who loved landscapes and wanted a visual arts career. Middlesbrough had no views and it had no art. William, however, had seen glimpses of a different place where the surroundings fed an ardent young imagination.

“During the war, when father was away, grandmother and mum took me regularly to Glaisdale for walking holidays,” he says. “I’d have been five or six and it was rather idyllic. The village then had three pubs and we stayed at one of them, The Arncliffe Hotel. There were pigs at the back and hens everywhere. In the evening the gong went and everyone would come and sit around one long table for their meal.”

After the war, the Tillyers lived above a hardware store in Middlesbrough opened by William’s father. “It was towards Newport Bridge,” recalls William. “It was absolutely horrendous. Two or three days a week the air was solid yellow, you could almost cut it. That was from ICI.”

From an early age he says he was tagged as a boy who was good at art. And, although Middlesbrough could not offer much to look at in nature, it did provide a five year-old with a stimulating architectural experience. At the newly-built Whinney Banks primary school, inner city children were taught using the latest theories from abroad.

“It was an idealistic conception and was built in the Bauhaus style. There were pools with fish in them and we slept outside in blankets. It followed a German model of teaching, where you worked and then you rested.”

An 11-plus failure, William was less fortunate with his secondary modern school. “Some of the children were absolutely filthy. They would not turn up regularly because there was only one pair of shoes in the family. It seems so Dickensian, unbelievable really.”

His parents forked out to send him to a private school in West Hartlepool. “It was like being transported to a different planet. It had carpets and pictures on the walls. And smaller classes.”

Meantime the hardware business was thriving. Eventually the family shifted away from the fumes of Newport Bridge and commuted from a new home in Glaisdale.

William, an only child, did not see his future standing behind a hardware counter. “I occasionally filled in at the shop. Later there was never any atmosphere about me not carrying on in the business.”

Now in later life he muses on how deeply his youthful determination to break free must have impacted on the family. “My father had emphysema and it would have been much easier for them if I had kept running the shop.”

In 1956 Middlesbrough Art College was his signpost to the promised land. “It was actually a converted house which reeked of genuine turpentine and oil painting. It was marvellous.”

At that time, farm-gate milk collections around Glaisdale were carried out by a man who lived opposite the Tillyers. One summer, when the roundsman was looking for a holiday, he enlisted William, then a student on vacation, as his stand-in. “I had never driven a lorry in my life,” William recalls. “I was taken once round the block and that was it.”

The farmers put out their ten gallon churns on wooden stands at the entrance to the farm. “The churns were incredibly heavy”.

Manoeuvring, on his own, each weighty churn from platform to truck gave him an intimate understanding of the value of this rural system. He later took out his camera and the milk stand images became a project and an exhibition called The Furnished Landscape.

Most of the images he creates are abstract. But the connection between daily practicalities and the artistic imagination informs much of his work. It’s rooted in reality. He links his notion of the furnished landscape with his early days and the family business furnishing people’s homes with useful things.

As a young man he needed broader horizons. “The best thing to be said about Middlesbrough is that there was no urban sprawl.” But it was a place to get away from. “As soon as you could, you got your train ticket to London.”

When he started at the Slade School of Fine Art, people like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland were the big names in the art world. The fashionable artist at the Slade was David Bomberg. So who did he follow? “I followed myself. I knew what I wanted to do.”

His first job after graduating was in Paris to study gravure. He subsequently travelled extensively, working on the continent and in America and Australia. Eventually he took a studio near London Bridge and lived in Wimbledon. The one-hour commuting time became irksome and he and his wife moved back to Glaisdale in 1980. “Glaisdale is terribly important to me. Both my parents are buried in the graveyard.”

He arrived with a plan in mind. “I had a thing about building a modern house and I came up north with that intention.” The idea behind the move and his chief inspiration was a house called Fallingwater which he had visited in Pennsylvania. He keeps a large photo of it on his studio wall.

Designed in 1934 as a family home by Frank Lloyd Wright, it was a landmark of modernist architecture, built over a waterfall in a spectacular setting.

William’s new house was also to have been in a wood beside water and he commissioned the chief architect of the new town of Milton Keynes to design it.

But the site lay within the North York Moors National Park and the authorities eventually ruled against having anything like Fallingwater on their patch. The Tillyers appealed and the process dragged on for years. By now they had bought a farm property at Ingleby Greenhow – also within the National Park – and again they fell foul of the powers that be. “I’m a great tree planter, I’ve planted 1,0000 trees. Because of the way I see the landscape, I was planting trees in a semi geometric fashion. An avenue of trees was too strident for the North York Moors National Park.”

His new exhibition which opened the day after his 75th birthday is at the National Park centre in Danby. That does not stop him feeling sore about the way he has been treated. “As a national park I don’t think very highly of them. They run it trying to keep things as they were – looking backwards. They don’t seem to realise the land could only look like that by evolving through ordinary people living there.”

Last year William and his wife moved again, this time to Stokesley. His studio is a short walk away. It is hung with large sheets of narrow plastic mesh material which he stands behind to work, his brush forcing through the acrylic paint, mostly in his favourite green and blue and earth colours.

It’s a kind of back-to-front working, where he has to come round the side of the plastic sheet to see how the painting is coming along from the front.

He’s only eight miles or so from Middlesbrough where he started out. “When I was around there was no real art gallery to speak of. The only place to see paintings was a small space at the top of the central library. They bought a former doctor’s house and called it an art gallery.”

But in the intervening years the town has broadened its horizons too. For a start, it now has the £14.2m Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) and William was the artists’ representative on the committee which chose the Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat to design it.

“A certain element will see art as airy-fairy stuff, a waste of time. But Middlesbrough has to raise its game. People are really seeing that art attracts people, look at The Hepworth in Wakefield.”

He takes issue with critics who say that Mima’s approach is not sufficiently populist. “It’s an education process. If you can only go and see what familiar to you, what’s the point?”

He’s also still combative about the forest home he dreamt of building, a piece of live-in modernist architecture. “I haven’t given up on the idea. Although when you are 75 time is running out.”

The William Tillyer season begins with Haven at the Inspired by… Gallery at the North York Moors National Park Centre at Danby until November 3; William Tillyer retrospective, Mima, October 25 to February 9; Tillyer- relief works, Platform A Gallery, Middlesbrough, from October 24.