From the Spring 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
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.”
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.”