Tristram Hillier

Composition 1933 (Interior)


Not on display

Tristram Hillier 1905–1983
Oil paint on plywood
Unconfirmed: 698 × 546 mm
Purchased 1994

Display caption

Influenced by De Chirico’s combination of classical and modern elements, Hillier’s Composition 1933 (Interior) evokes an atmosphere of timeless mystery through the broken chairs and the classical figures in the discarded painting, while the newspaper provides a contemporary detail. The unsettling qualities of this atmosphere are enhanced by his precise realism. Hillier was member of Unit One, a British group of progressive painters, sculptors and architects founded in 1933 by the painter Paul Nash.

Gallery label, December 2008

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Technique and condition

The artist has painted onto a piece of plywood measuring 700 x 545 x 7 mms. The plywood is made up of six layers of wood, the uppermost of which is slightly thinner than the other. The panel has warped since the painting was completed, and has started to crack in several places. The cracks have developed in the upper layer of veneer and run vertically (along the grain of the wood). The edges of the panel have been knocked and chipped, and a small piece of veneer has been lost from the back.

Prior to being used by the artist, the panel has been scored and scratched in the front and back faces. On the front of the painting, the dents and hollows of these score marks are visible through the paint. The marks give a slight textured effect which is unrelated to the painted image.

Before painting, the board was prepared with a thick layer of gesso, creamy-white in colour and probably made of glue and chalk. The gesso covers the whole front face of the panel and has been applied in a smooth, even layer. A series of vertical cracks has developed in this layer, most probably caused by movement within the panel. There are also two long vertical cracks which relate to the splits in the veneer. Some of the gesso layer has been lost along the edges of the panel where the painting has been knocked and damaged.

An initial drawing of the composition in graphite pencil is visible in the outlines of the rope, chairs and newspapers. The drawing is very deliberate and precise, and some of the pencil lines ruled suggesting that the artist was transferring an already composed design onto the panel.

The oil paint has been applied in blocks of colour, closely following the drawn lines (there is little indication to suggest that the artist has strayed from the original design). The paint has been applied in a range of ways. In some areas, such as the foreground, the paint has been thinly applied in a free, loose manner. In such places, the creamy colour of the ground shows through the paint. In other areas of more detail, the paint has been applied in thicker layers and is slightly more impasted. The artist has signed his signature in the top right corner of the painting in white paint. The pigments employed include lead white, chalk, yellow ochre, cadmium red, red-lake (probably rose madder), artificial ultramarine, brown earths and black. The madder is clearly identifiable by its bright pink-orange fluorescence in ultra-violet light.
Some of the brush strokes are so clearly defined that the dimensions of the brushes can be ascertained. Where the artist has blocked in large areas of colour, such as in the foreground, he has used a large, flat, square-ended brush with a width of around 1.5 cms. In other areas, where the painting is more detailed, a smaller brush of around 0.5 cm has been employed.

Although most of the painting is very matt in appearance, there are a few localised glossy areas. When viewed under ultra-violet light, these areas of fluorescence bright green-yellow, indicative of a natural resin varnish. This layer has been applied in the areas of the door and in the woodwork of the chair. The well-defined brush strokes of application indicate that it was applied by the artist. Another overall varnish layer has been applied at a later stage. Although this has since been removed, traces of it still remain down the edges of the panel, and in small spots over the painting's surface.

Surface dirt was removed and losses along the edges were filled and inpainted with watercolour. The fitting of the painting in the frame was improved, and low reflecting glass was fitted.

Susan Breen
October 1994

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