Issue Number: 118
With their joyful colours, Joe Tilson RA’s paintings on wood hint at his lifelong love of nature and Italy. Fiona Maddocks meets him at his workers’ cottage in an unlikely location – Chelsea.
One of Joe Tilson’s first studios – he has almost lost count of the number he has had since – was an old dairy off Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill, an area still seedy and downtrodden in those early post-war years. ‘People used to knock on the door and ask for a pint of milk… I’d say “No, I sell paintings, not milk.” Jack Smith, then the most famous artist of his day, found it for me. I paid £2 per week. Everyone was poor and property was cheap. Even as students we could live in the middle of London. So in that way at least, poverty was good for the artist.’
Joe Tilson RA in his Chelsea studio, with 'The Stones of Venice, San Zan Degola, Venessia', 2012 on the easel behind. Photo © Eamonn McCabe. Six decades later, at the age of 84, Tilson and his artist wife Joslyn, known as ‘Jos’ – they met in Rome in the 1950s – still live in the middle of London. ‘On walking tours of the area, our row of houses is pointed out and described as workers’ cottages,’ he grins. These ‘workers’ cottages’, rather more than two-up-two-down, and highly desirable, are just behind Sloane Square. Tilson, is aware of the irony and chuckles gleefully.
At the RCA Tilson was part of a gilded circle. He made lasting friendships with Peter Blake and David Hockney and in 1955 won the coveted Rome Prize. By 1964, Tilson had been selected for the Venice Biennale. His love affair with Italy, already passionate, was consolidated and remains one of the most powerful influences on his art. ‘Nowadays we spend about half the year in Italy, either Venice or Tuscany, and I have studios there,’ he says, retrieving photos to demonstrate, some loose, others stuck in one of the sketch-books he uses, notated with his open, flowing handwriting.
Both he and Jos – whose three children Jake, Anna and Sophie are all professional artists – have their own studios in each place. They came to the London house about 10 years ago. ‘We decided to reorder our lives a bit. We sold our house in the country and moved here and built my studio, in effect like a conservatory in the garden.’ It may have an ordinary pitched glass roof, but there is under-floor heating – ‘Lovely and warm like an old folks home’ – and the floor itself is French limestone with beautiful insets of Rosso di Verona, a variegated red marble.
Tilson’s forthcoming show at Marlborough Fine Art, spanning the years 1965 to 2012, will include recent work done in Venice, featuring some of the churches he particularly likes. ‘I’m fond of the little known ones, the ‘secret’ ones most people walk straight past, such as San Pantalon, San Zan Degolà or Santa Maria della Visitazione.’ Each painting has a double panel at the centre, one showing the church, with a decorative, re-imagined church pavement surround. This sense of pattern and joyful colour has always been, and remains, a defining feature of Tilson’s work.
The far end of the studio is below street level. You twist down narrow stairs from kitchen to basement into a well-stocked and ordered library. This is Tilson’s way, his wife confirms: everything, paint, brushes, books, must be in its place, whereas she prefers a bit of mess. Literature, poetry, philosophy, artists’ monographs, CDs – Mozart, Monteverdi, Chopin – are tidily stowed. ‘I learned all I know from an ignorant fool – that’s to say, myself. I’m pretty much self-taught.’
Born in south London in 1928, Tilson decided to become a painter at the age of eight. ‘I won a prize from the London County Council and was given a book on Giotto and early Italian painting. That was the start. I was very clear about the decision.’ When the war came his parents, both telegraphists, booked Tilson and his younger sister on a boat to Canada. ‘But a boat with other children heading for Canada was sunk by the Germans and my parents changed their minds, so we stayed in London. For a few years I didn’t go to school.’
By his early teens, Tilson had enrolled at the Brixton School of Building, which, he says, equipped him with all the crafts he still uses in his art. ‘There was bricklaying in the basement, painting and decorating on the ground floor, woodwork on the first, then plumbing, then masonry and hand carving.’ Aged 15 he left to work as a carpenter, before being called up (he was in the RAF) three years later.
He points to work in progress in his small but impeccably organised studio: a ‘canvas’ consisting of a painted wooden structure divided into compartments, each containing a hand-carved object with the word Tullio beneath. ‘It’s a homage to Tullio Lombardo [the Italian Renaissance sculptor] and uses several of those skills I learned long ago in Brixton.’
This lithe, wiry, beady-eyed figure, who became an RA in 1991, still likes to work in a carpenter’s apron, as if always reminding himself of his origins. He has moved through several identifiable phases in his art. ‘The Pop Art period – which at first was called New Image Painting or Object Painting – grew out of a belief at that time, pre-Vietnam, that everything was good about America – Hollywood, the movies, a celebration of new things,’ Tilson says. ‘But by 1967-68 I had changed direction radically because of the war.’ His new subject matter was highly political: Ho Chi Minh, Black Power, Malcolm X, Che Guevara.
You could write a history, if a slightly lopsided one, of the 1960s and 1970s based on Tilson’s preoccupations. With the 1970s and a new enthusiasm for macrobiotics and the good life, the family moved to an old rectory in Wiltshire, where they grew their own food and ploughed and toiled. Tilson turned his attention, literally, to the earth, making a series of works inspired by ecology and the four elements. He also developed a love of Greek myth, and the idea of the labyrinth, ‘and making order out of chaos.’ Were they hippies? ‘Oh yes,’ he smiles broadly. ‘Of course we were hippies, or rather we were thought of as hippies, but with a rather intellectual take on everything.’ Yet he has always, too, been a worker. Those tour guides round Sloane Square, and their notions of labourers’ dwellings, may be right after all.