William Tillyer

born 1938

William Tillyer, ‘Night Rain’ 1972
Night Rain 1972
© William Tillyer
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William Tillyer (born 1938 in Middlesbrough) is an English artist. His work has been shown frequently in the UK and internationally since 1970.

He studied art at Middlesbrough College of Art from 1956-9, moving south to London in the 1960s to study at the Slade School of Art. It was there he encountered William Coldstream and Anthony Gross, among others. Following his time at the Slade, Tillyer took up a French Government Scholarship to study gravure under Stanley William Hayter, at Atelier 17 in Paris.

On his return to London, Tillyer began to make radically experimental work which raised questions about the relationship of art to the world – man to nature. Nature and the universal unity of all matter is an abiding theme for Tillyer; his work makes repeated reference of the North Yorkshire countryside, beginning with his earliest painting, and continuing up until the present day, as in Beach and Sea, Seaton Carew (1956) and Relentless 7 (2016) respectively. These are not necessarily simple representations of nature, however; Tillyer’s art is imbued with the inherent tension of "creating" landscapes, demonstrated with almost monastic economy in his "conceptual" works from the 1960s, as in his white monochrome hinged tryptic, Falling Pinnacle (1961).

Consistently searching for new means by which to explore his thoughts, the 1970s saw Tillyer return to print-making with renewed vigour. He won international acclaim at the Second International Print Bienalle in Kraków, and found the support of Bernard Jacobson, who has been his dealer ever since. With these prints Tillyer used a variety of techniques, from etching to five tone screenprinting, to create lattices, which through the gradation of tone themselves depicted what Pat Gilmour, the head of the Print Department at the Tate, described as 'a cool and unpeopled world...in which to reflect the surrounding flux of nature'.

Such concerns have continued to underpin Tillyer's practice to the present day, the artist balancing formal and technical experimentation against the demands of subject matter – demanding multiple reactions from the viewer. His most recent series reveals the artist returning to some of the earliest themes of his career, isolating John Constable's cloud studies, as a motif through which to explore his own thoughts about the English Landscape today.

Tillyer's painterly facture has changed regularly throughout his long career, using alternative technical means and methods, varying his nominal or surface objects, and moving over a wide range of tone and expression. As Norbert Lynton notes in his 2000 monograph of the artist's work: "Critics insist on calling him a landscape painter... [but] he is no more a landscape painter than he is a painter of still life or interiors." Figures are rare in his work, as is narrative, though both can be found.

In 2010 a major monograph on his watercolours was published by 21 Publishing covering almost 40 years of his practise. In the extensive text American art critic and poet John Yau writes "However beautiful they are, and many of them are extremely beautiful, almost painfully so, Tillyer's watercolours never lead us away in favour of an Edenic vision."

In 2013 Mima Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in Middlesbrough gave Tillyer his first major retrospective exhibition since 1996.

In late 2017, Bernard Jacobson announced in the Art Newspaper that he would be filling most of his 2018 exhibition schedule with shows dedicated to Tillyer, launching "five separate exhibitions incorporating new and historic works by the Middlesbrough-born artist." Jacobson, who has been Tillyer’s dealer since 1969, states: “He was an unknown then, and I’ve stayed loyal to him since. I consider him the heir to Constable through Cézanne and Matisse. He is an intensely private man who is completely outside the system, and I’m keen to set the record straight. He never received the support of key establishment figures such as [the former Tate director] Nicholas Serota.” There are at least 15 works by Tillyer in the Tate collection including High Force (1974).

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