Painters are ‘solicited by the elements’, observed the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard . They recall our gaze to the dynamism of the world of matter and to the elements of water, fire, and air that shape it. Ultimately, Tillyer’s is a vision of their active interrelationship. In a recent series work – his ‘Esk’ series – made in counterpoint to TheGolden Striker, he is solicited by the element of water; namely the waterworlds of the river Esk in North Yorkshire. He has travelled widely in Europe, America and Australia, but his ‘Esk’ paintings witness a return – perhaps more conceptually than figuratively – to a source that has fertilised his artistic imagination since childhood.
The river is inscribed in his early memories as a place of refuge during the Second World War when his childhood home in Middlesborough was bombed. As a child in the 1940s, he recalls walking along its banks and through the Arncliffe Woods, and viewing the river from a great height. Some thirty years later, after moving to a house on the banks of the Esk overlooking a stone bridge, he created the Living by the Esk paintings, prints, and watercolours. In the title painting he stripped back and cut into the canvas, almost painfully exposing its skeletal structure of wooden supports, which he supplemented with string mesh. The effect is gentler in three On Coming Upon a Bridge paintings where the web-like string creates a rhythmic pattern across the picture plane, highlighting organic shapes created in the openings of the canvas and echoing the arc of the bridge. The impulse here to enliven negative space recalls Barbara Hepworth’s use of strung wires in her sculptures. It is a characteristic impulse of Tillyer’s. His paintings work to the edge of their medium, inhabiting a territory somewhere between sculpture and painting.
William Tillyer, Esk 9. Relentless. An English Idyll. 2017-18 Acrylic on aluminium, 100 x 100 cms
From his experiments in the application of paint to wire mesh in the late 1970s, to the drastic, almost violent opening up of The Victorian Canvases in the early 1980s, producing tough, rough surfaces which coincided with the ‘Punk’ movement, to the perforations in his Bedford Hills watercolours (2001), Tillyer has employed various techniques through which to ‘break’ the conventions of the picture surface. If the canvas and its support structure represent the ‘susceptible body’ for painting as the poet John Yau puts it, rather than a flat continuous surface for layers of paint, then it undergoes a form of surgery as well as metaphysical investigation in Tillyer’s hands. His radical ideas about surface are bound up with the interrogation of what he calls the ‘tyranny of the picture plane’ – dramatized in an eponymous work of 2013. In diverse permutations, the grid, mesh, or lattice provide him with a physical structure as well as a metaphor for creative process. The friction and energy of the artist’s exertions in shaping and structuring the natural world are demonstrated in his innovatory technique of pushing paint through to the surface from behind the picture plane. Nevertheless, if the painter seeks to ‘hold’ an image of nature in the net-like mesh of his canvas, it is one that can pass between two planes and metamorphose
Tillyer’s approach calls to mind concerns about the pursuit and containment of nature in the net of language articulated in the epigraph I borrow from the sixteenth-century poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' by Thomas Wyatt. ‘Since in a net I seek to hold the wind’, writes Wyatt, and these concerns remain urgent in Tillyer’s collaboration with the contemporary poet Alice Oswald. The live, unfixed qualities of weather, water, and colour shape the worlds of the watercolours he has made with and alongside ‘the simple mineral monologue of / water’ we hear through Oswald’s long poem, 'Nobody'. The dialogue between this shape-shifting body of watercolours and The Golden Striker – works conceived on vastly different scales and with different media – is nevertheless apparent on the level of surface and texture as much as gesture. In both, we follow the spray of paint beyond the limits of the frame, or find our eyes transfixed on pocked vibrating surfaces.
William Tillyer, Esk 1. Relentless. An English Idyll. 2017-18 Acrylic on aluminium, 100 x 100 cms
Tillyer’s ambivalence about forms of containment is implicit in his distinctive aesthetic of apertures, fissures, or gaps, which can be traced from his earliest work to the present. As he returns to the ever shifting ‘open surface’ of the river Esk we might wonder what images of mind or world he finds mirrored in its surface. The artist’s choice of a square format rather than a conventional horizontal landscape canvas for many of the new 'Esk' works suggests that these are portraits of water in its endless forms and deformations. They are like mirrors that move – unfixed, elusive images.
The first of the new 'Esk' paintings communicates a quieter radicalism than those on the same theme from the 1970s and 80s. A golden orb suffuses the canvas with a glow that seems to exhale beyond the bounds of the picture. As if lit from within, pockets or hollows of light emerge as multiple luminous focal points behind the veils of green, orange and blue. The lyric theme of setting sun over water suggests itself, but Tillyer dissolves any naturalistic markers through his diffuse layers and plunging arcs of colour. The interplay between artifice and nature is less evidently combative here and the meditative atmosphere speaks to the romantic aspect of the painter’s nature. We readily note affinities with the visionary landscape painter Samuel Palmer, with J.W. Turner’s veils of misty light, but also with the Scottish watercolourist Arthur Melville, whose luminous proto-abstract works were a response to the blinding white light he encountered on his travels in Egypt and Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet, if Tillyer’s landscape is consciously romantic and lyrical it also celebrates and draws attention to painted surface. We seem to witness the ongoing process of making in the molten flux of brushstrokes and the chromatic struggle between warm oranges, yellows and cooler blue and white tones.
This is painting as a form of quest or visual philosophy, as Tillyer describes it. His expressive responsiveness to the natural world prompts his association with the Romantic tradition of landscape painting but he is equally concerned with Classical order and architecture. In making the 'Esk' works he went out into the North Yorkshire landscape to look at particular bridges - Egton or Glaisdale for instance – and sometimes made drawings or photographs for reference, but he is not engaged in the type of plein air painting to which contemporaries such as David Hockney are committed. In his quietly subversive way, he is anti-topographical and almost anti-plein air. There is a characteristic element of playful irony in all this: what he describes as ‘having it both ways’. For Tillyer, the encounter with the River Esk is less about a ‘spirit of place’ than a vehicle through which to explore the fundamental dualities he addresses in all of his aesthetic experiments: art and nature, architecture and the organic.
William Tillyer, Esk 5. Relentless. An English Idyll. 2017-18 Acrylic on aluminium, 100 x 100 cms
Relentless is the title Tillyer has given to a sub-series or tributary of Esk works in which he interrogates the force of water. ‘What shall we compare to this mighty, this universal element, for glory and for beauty?’ wrote John Ruskin in 1843, ‘Or how shall we follow its eternal changefulness of feeling? It is like trying to paint a soul’. Painted in 2016, the Relentless works are an expression of Tillyer’s ‘Esk’ philosophy: his sense of the unstoppable energy of life and nature’s capacity for regeneration. In 2014-15 his contemporary Maggi Hambling exhibited her huge sea paintings, Walls of Water, which speak to this urge to describe the sublime element of water and man’s efforts to control it – in this instance, the waves crashing onto a sea wall in Suffolk. The Relentless paintings similarly register man’s diminutive stature and limited power in confronting water and its resistance to being tamed. Tillyer’s interest in this theme can be traced back to his Fallingwater watercolours of the early 1990s, inspired by a visit to the iconic house of the same name cantilevered over the waterfalls of Bear Run in Pennsylvania designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The image of the house dramatically positioned on the rock ledge in direct encounter with the rushing water epitomises Tillyer’s fascination with the conjunction of geometry and nature in a kind of domesticated sublime. The Relentless paintings are a series of variations on this theme as the painter chooses the bridge – that symbol of connectivity and of man’s intervention in landscape – as his central motif.
There is an element of performance in these paintings that locates them in a genealogy shared with The Golden Striker. The overarching title Esk: Landscape into Art acknowledges man’s framing of nature’s performance, with a nod to Kenneth Clark’s seminal book of the same title. In Esk/ Arncliffe the mysterious, deep purple archways of the bridge are almost eclipsed by a billowing storm-cloud of paint that whirls toward the viewer right to left. Esk II prepares for this dynamism in another acrylic on mesh composition in which the bridge is seen through a Poussanian/Claudian haze of light. Its position is precarious: placed in a quiet, luminous quarter of the painting it is almost overwhelmed by the surge of impasto paint spraying and rebounding against it. The haze of gold-white meets a palpable edge in the ellipses of green, which diagonally bisects the composition and asserts the bridge as the point of resistance.
William Tillyer, Esk 7. Relentless. An English Idyll. 2017-18 Acrylic on aluminium, 100 x 100 cms
The 'Relentless' paintings exult in these creative confrontations. In the second work of the series the cloud spattered “sky” is rendered in blue and black clods and clusters of paint protruding from the surface. It is as if the artist is grappling nature’s excess into a shape of his own, or a though the elements have found tactile form. In the larger Esk landscapes the fine mesh surface is puckered as if by raindrops with areas of near translucency around the edges, but in the Relentless works the larger openings of the aluminium grid allow the cloud-like masses to press out like sculptural formations into the viewer’s space. They disrupt the instinctive impulse to settle the churning mass into a stable image of sky, water and bridge. A similar effect is achieved in the fourth Relentless painting, where sky and water meet in a turbulent flux of blue and green, the trajectory through the bridge iterating the endless cycle of water’s evaporation and condensation.
Tillyer explored the water cycle in his The Palmer Paintings series of 2012 subtitled with an evocative quotation from Psalm 63: Clouds That Drop their Fatness On The Earth. In Palmer Va we feel the weight of the clouds in textured slabs of paint hardened into ceramic smoothness on the surface. This large painting evokes the feeling of witnessing great tidal movements or thermal currents at great distance, as in satellite photographs. There is a very different sensation of proximity in the Relentless series. In Relentless 7 we plunge into a water-world, led by the dripping paint toward the only illusion of spatial depth: the shadowy opening of a bridge which is more like an underwater cave. Rather than mounting the aluminium onto canvas, Tillyer has bolted it to a support leaving a few inches of space between it and the wall. The luminous green and blue surface is densely encrusted and resists the eye’s penetration except for the area around the archway, which draws the gaze into its recesses and creates a flickering optical effect as one moves around the painting. On closer viewing, an archipelago of coagulated pigment islands appear on the textured surface. Drifting across the picture plane in constellations like lily pads, they reimagine Monet’s water lilies in an uncompromisingly material form.
The encounter is even more appealing to the haptic sense in Esk/Westerdale 1 where layers of fluid, viscous paint fill each square, building a surface suggestive of a mineral encrustation in a rock pool where contours are dictated by tidemarks. Tillyer is concerned with these alternations between emptiness and clotted fullness, open and closed surfaces. In the Esk and Relentless paintings he conjures the non-human temporalities of water, its velocity and force, but also its mineral slowness as it drips, pools, and coagulates with matter. The appeal is tactile as well as perceptual: the immediacy of the human hand meeting water, the eye touching the painted surface.
Tillyer’s ‘harness’ for the elemental world - his ‘mesh’ - comes further into focus when we consider his revisionary approach to land-and-waterscape alongside an earlier generation of post-war painters. Peter Lanyon’s ‘glider’ paintings of the late 1950s and 60s demonstrate an unmistakable affinity with the aerial. The gestural rhythms and textured surfaces of his celebrated Thermal of 1960 are informed by his experience of negotiating rising and sinking air currents as a glider pilot. Reversing the conventions of landscape painting, the viewer experiences the earth from the air with landscape reduced to an abstract grid. Lanyon uses the term ‘airscapes’ to describe these works, finding in this element ‘a very definite world of activity as complex and demanding as the sea.’
William Tillyer, Esk 6. Relentless. An English Idyll. 2017-18 Acrylic on aluminium, 100 x 100 cms
Tillyer’s mesh works bring him closer to the aerial: they aerate the traditional canvas as if to let the elemental world breathe through it. Yet while Lanyon explores the experience of moving ‘inside’ the sky, Tillyer examines what he describes as man’s ‘insidedness’ in nature. His desire for physical involvement with landscape informs his sense that painting is a ‘real piece of physicality’. The resolutely modern, anti-romantic frame for this experience is the motorcar. I was given a taste of his passion for driving on a route we took through the North Yorkshire hills. Driving through this undulating landscape allows one to pass very quickly between different planes and perspectives: at one moment the distance between land and sky collapses as an illuminated hillside meets an enclosed holloway of green, and in the next the car seems to soar into the sky. The slightly vertiginous experience of this daily drive to the studio feeds Tillyer’s painting as it did for Lanyon whose passion for fast driving is well documented. The shifting contours and textures of the Yorkshire landscape have been absorbed into the fabric of his work and they reveal themselves in abstracted rotating forms and apertures.
The relish for the physicality of painting that we experience in Tillyer’s works would at first seem to represent a counterpoint to his parallel project in watercolour. Here colour is absorbed by and often vanishes into the paper creating a reverse experience to the building up of surface texture that has long preoccupied the artist. However, in his Esk- Interventions we encounter perforations, torn edges and unfurling twists of paper where colour is applied to the back of the paper so that it appears to break through the surface. These spiralling forms register as ‘gyros’ – or energy shapes - as if vibrating air currents are pushing their way through the paper from behind its surface. Typically combining the linear and the amorphous these works take up the iconography of the Esk landscapes in semi-abstract form. Tillyer has applied colour and crayon to torn pieces of hand-made Japanese paper embedded with leaves to create works which, with their roughly torn edges, speak to the idea of the modernist fragment – leaf-like scraps of the natural world ‘caught on the wing’ and mounted on board. In one composition he places a strip of watercolour saturated with lush green hues across the picture plane leaving a portion unmounted so that the wall modifies the composition. In another he introduces a piece of blue mesh, which creates a barrier or vibratory perceptual blur and obstructs the faint image of the bridge behind it. At the same time it functions as a sign for rain driving across landscape. Tillyer’s interest in the ‘edge’ – the physical parameters of a work and the metaphysical limits of our encounter with it – is also evident here in the various combinations of hard-angled geometry, open mesh, and the waving line of torn paper.
In the 1930s Lanyon’s contemporary, Ivon Hitchens sought to extend the scope of landscape by using elongated horizontal canvases. These tripartite canvases encourage lateral eye movement in reading the rhythms of the surface – ‘eye music’ as he called it. As the eye naturally moves most readily from side to side’, Hitchens explained, the ‘colour notes’ of a painting ‘grow in interest and complexity as the field of vision is extended and widened’. Comparisons between Tillyer’s work and Hitchens’ lush yet tightly constructed Sussex landscapes are to some extent persuasive, and their work was exhibited together in the 90s. But today he is venturing elsewhere. Whether in a coercive projection of painting toward the viewer or a solicitation of the space behind its conventional surface, Tillyer challenges and jolts the viewer out of habitual patterns of perception. The eye must travel under the surface: literally through the open mesh to negotiate the wall behind, rather than passively following an illusion of perspective. In the context of our contemporary virtual existence, the congealed, screen-locked gaze finds release and recovered agility in travelling through these paintings.
‘Frobisher’: The Revisionist Vase and Arrangement Or, Landscape meets Still Life
You arrange, a thing is posed/ what in nature merely grows (Wallace Stevens, ‘Add this to Rhetoric’)
Frobisher 'Vase and Arrangement' after a painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem c1660 180x180cm
Tillyer first brought landscape and still life into contact in his Living by the Esk etchings and paintings. While his transformation of the landscape tradition has received insightful attention from writers including John Yau and Norbert Lynton, his treatment of still life remains largely unexplored. To fully appreciate the scope of his new Esk project, we must give further attention to the ongoing conversation between these genres in his work. Looking back to The Esk of 1984 we notice the tension between landscape and still life in the juxtaposition of a figuratively rendered bridge and a collage of brightly coloured geometric shapes and impasto flourishes overlaid on a string grid – an abbreviation of the vase of flowers motif. This motif is pervasive in Tillyer’s visual vocabulary, announced in his large painting Florist II of 1977 and returned to during the following decade in various geometric abstractions of flowers painted from life on the window ledge of his Yorkshire home.
Tillyer’s 'Frobisher' paintings and watercolours offer a retort to those who would fix the artist in the Yorkshire landscape. The series was conceived in the heart of London’s metropolis in 2015 and the artist continued to develop these works alongside the Esk series over the following two years. From the high vantage of his East London studio in the Barbican, modern tower blocks jostle for space in a continually reforming geometric skyline. The 'Frobisher' paintings absorb and reform this view. Tillyer typically presents the traditional subject of flowers on a table set against gridded backdrops that call to mind the hard-edged contours of the London skyline. The titles of these paintings, Spittlefields, Smithfields, Carthusian, speak directly to this topography. ‘Frobisher’, refers to the Barbican complex, but it also alludes to exploratory journeys: we learn that Martin Frobisher was a mid-sixteenth-century explorer and licensed pirate from Yorkshire who voyaged to the New World in in search of the Northwest Passage. The association has a pleasing synergy with Tillyer’s paintings, where the ostensibly ordinary, domestic subject of the floral arrangement serves as an anchor for formal experimentation.
Frobisher 'Plate of Oranges' 180x180cm
Colour flickers and blooms in works such as Carthusian. Here the dialectic between the hard edged and organic is heightened by a vertical line marking off a dark band of colour; on the opposite side of which rages the turbulent chromatics of a flower arrangement. In Smithfields, an arc of green paint creates a counter movement to the pattern of light pink squares, which allude to the tower block windows seen from the studio. The flowers are signified by an explosion of luxuriant impasto laid on with vigorous strokes that spread across the picture plane but also push forwards towards the viewer as if to enter into their space. Tillyer continues to employ his distinctive technique of pushing paint through the back of the mesh in these works, but he also manipulates the surface, scraping back and reforming excess pigment. The result is almost sculptural, and it beckons touch. The luscious impasto used to describe oranges on a plate presents one such sensuous invitation. Yet the same composition is troubled by a storm cloud of paint shot through with quivering lines like lightning currents that lower down over the plate of oranges. Tillyer seems to take his cue from the feeling of uneasy wonder prompted by seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes which typically depict abundant material comforts: the astonishing Festoon of Fruit and Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem, for instance. Rendered in polished, meticulous detail, this gleaming vision haunts and unsettles the viewer.
Tillyer looks back to the control and polish of trompe oeil paintings of flowers by De Heem and his contemporaries but he also follows in the footsteps of twentieth century masters such as Cézanne and Matisse – artists who harnessed still life to make radical pictorial experiments in form and colour. The image of the vase of flowers directly pertains to the natural world, yet it does so in a form tamed and contained by man-as-artist. It arguably functions as a metaphor for art itself, and for the creative act. In a poem titled ‘Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers’, the American poet Wallace Stevens takes up this metaphor as he remakes the genre of flower painting in words. The poet invites us to observe the performance of creative composition in a hybrid portrait-still-life that is at the same time an enactment of perceptual experience. We witness how ‘High blue became particular/In the leaf and bud’, and how the ‘red, / Flicked into pieces, points of air, […] Escaped its large abstraction’.
Frobisher 'Interior with Oranges' 180x180cm
The Frobisher paintings enact such movements between the abstract and the particular. They are explosive yet reticent, unfolding their drama with the strange muted quality that comes with distance – like watching fire rage across water. The interplay between artifice (bridge) and nature (water) articulated in the Esk works is recast here in the volatile flowers, which represent nature’s rampant growth precariously contained in the architecture of the vase. The effect is marked in Vase and Arrangement after Jan Davidsz de Heem, a painting in which the semi-transparent black mesh flickers and vibrates, punctuated by rows of neatly arranged coloured squares. The squares read as a colour chart or an immaculately ordered palette, perhaps even as dilated pixels on a digital screen. However, the juxtaposition between the painter’s palette and the reactivity of his pigments - the explosive impasto brushwork describing the vase of flowers - hints at larger questions about the unstable relationship between nature and culture.
Tillyer’s use of black ground recalls Two Forms, a painting of 1991 in which the smooth black surface sets off two luminous green and blue forms suspended in space. These undulant forms evoke something of the strangeness and unearthliness of sea creatures living unseen in deep waters where light does not penetrate. ‘Black is a force’, wrote Henri Matisse, and we recognise this force in Gourds and The Moroccans, painted 1915-16, which make striking use of flat black backgrounds. Black Square, Malevich’s radical statement in the same colour was first displayed the same year. There is an element of homage to modernism, then, in Tillyer’s works on sheer black backgrounds, where chromatic intensity is generated out of contrast and opposition. Rather than choose naturalistic hues to represent flowers, Tillyer emphatically locates them in the world of artifice or heightened reality, deploying fluorescent oranges and high-toned greens. We cannot help but remember his literary touchstone, Joris-Karl Huysmans whose novel A Rebours (1884) recounts the syanesthetic experiments of the protagonist Jean des Esseintes and his bejewelled tortoise.
Tillyer’s Frobisher watercolours, which he produced in his Barbican studio represent an oneiric counterpart to the resolute physicality of his paintings. A single apple or orange asserts a strangely compelling presence in these still lifes, which maintain a loose thread of connection to the world of figuration. Several of these compositions are emptied of colour and volume in favour of pencil line. Interlocking spherical forms describe a plate of fruit in images that gesture at once to Ben Nicholson’s spare outlining of goblets (think of his three goblets of 1967, Tate), or to Patrick Caulfield’s play on absence and presence and the world of branding in screenprints such as Earthenware (also 1967, Tate). However, Tillyer places the fruit motif at a remove from the world of everyday objects by setting it within a cosmic iconography of Saturn rings and free-wheeling arcs of colour against gridded backdrops. The spheres of fruit and the planetary are brought together in visual rhymes, at once cosmic and comic. In one work a swirling mist of smoking lapis, pink and charcoal emanates from an orange, rising up to fill the upper picture plane. In another, lines of energy are registered through wing-like forms produced with a single broad-brush stroke. We recall Cézanne’s apples, which threaten to tumble off the table in many of his still life paintings as if subjected to invisible pressures. Tillyer’s sensitivity to the circulation of elemental currents might seem most evident in the Esk and Relentless works, but he is also responsive to the long history of animation in still life. As the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chiricio observed, ‘to paint air means to give such plasticity, such volume, such energy in the shape of things so that one can feel the air circulating between one object and the other; the objects appear as if suspended, immobile but alive in the air’. Whether on the grand stage of the The Golden Striker or through the intimacy of his watercolours, Tillyer pursues the energies of the elemental world and renders them visible. From the land-and waterscape of the Esk to the Barbican still life, we sense their circulations ‘alive in the air’.
-  William Tillyer, Hardware Variations On a Theme of Encounter (London: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 2002), exh. cat., p. 30.
-  Gaston Bachelard, The Right to Dream, trans by J. A. Underwood (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988), p. 28.
-  John Yau, ‘Found, Seen and Discovered: The Art of William Tillyer’, in William Tillyer: Against Nature, exh. cat. (Middlesborough: Mima, 2013), p. 10.
-  John Ruskin, ‘Of Truth of Water’, Modern Painters, ed. and abridged by David Barrie (London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1987), p. 136.
-  Ivon Hitchens, quoted by Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens (London: Lund Humphries, 2014), p.67.
-  ‘A Theoretical Letter from Ivon Hitchens to Maynard Keynes’, 27 November 1940, introduced by David Scrase, in Burlington Magazine, 125 (1983), 420-423 (p422)
-  Matisse, ‘Black is a colour’ (1946), Matisse on Art, ed. by Jack Flam (London: University of California Press, 1995).
-  Giorgio de Chiricio, La Nature Morte, in “L’illustrazione Italiana,” Milan 24 May 1942, p. 500’. Journal, p116.