This outstanding exhibition, the largest ever mounted at the Museum of Somerset, brings together more than 50 canvases by Tristram Hillier, one of Britain’s foremost 20th-century painters.
The show has been developed by South West Heritage Trust, which has a mission to bring work of national importance to the region, giving local residents the opportunity of seeing high-quality art without having to travel long distances.
The result is an impressive display drawn from private lenders and from many public collections, including Tate; National Galleries of Scotland; the UK Government Art Collection; Manchester, Southampton and Wolverhampton art galleries; Pallant House in Chichester; and the Shell Heritage Art Collection.
Not only does this exhibition show work by a major artist, but it also has a strong local appeal. Hillier lived in Somerset for the last 40 years of his life, and although his subject matter is wide-ranging, some of the pictures on display are recognisable local landscapes.
The show is a timely revival of Hillier’s reputation. It is more than 30 years since such a large collection of his work has been seen in one place. As he did not conform to a school of painting and had no followers, his name is often forgotten. During his lifetime, Hillier’s regular exhibitions sold out immediately, and his work is now scattered in museums and private collections all over the world.
This exhibition, thoughtfully hung with succinct commentaries on each picture, as well as a film giving glimpses of the man in his studio, charts Hillier’s life and his development as a painter.
From the medley of influences he absorbed when setting out as an artist, it follows his technical development and his search for a personal imagery, which eventually matured into what he termed “a very natural symbolism”. The exceptional works assembled include some real masterpieces, notably Le Havre de Grace and Variation on the Form of an Anchor (both 1939), Harness (1944), Ship Propulsion (1950) and Alcaniz (1960).
It is fascinating to trace Hillier’s artistic journey through these pictures. He was a promising young member of the British surrealist group, Unit One, and there are several of his more overtly surrealist paintings here – The Anchor, Pylons and Object on a Beach No. 1 (all 1933), as well as Composition 1933, which includes pictorial tributes to fellow Unit One members Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth.
To illustrate this point, the museum has hung a picture by each alongside Hillier’s composition. His transition from surrealism to a form of heightened realism is marked in paintings such as La Route des Alpes (1937), made during a period in which he lived in France and travelled around the south coast with Wadsworth. With war looming his mood became darker, and The Bridge at Yport, painted in 1940 just before his precipitate flight from France, shows subtle signs of disturbance.
Central to Hillier’s vision was his Roman Catholic faith. When he left Downside School, he considered becoming a monk and briefly attended a monastery near his father’s home in China.
Although he abandoned that idea, it was the influence of Downside that eventually drew him to settle nearby in Somerset. Even during his hedonistic years in France in the 1930s, when his faith seemed abandoned, religious motifs – churches and priests – appeared in his paintings.
After Hillier’s second marriage in 1937, he and his wife made an extensive tour of northern Italy, and the paintings he saw there had a profound effect on him, resulting in some overtly religious pictures – modernised versions of the crucifixion and lives of the saints.
Throughout his career, subtle religious symbols can be found in many of his paintings, where masts of boats echo Christ’s cross and abandoned garments his robe. Hillier’s spiritual pilgrimage progresses by boat or by road into the distance, with lighthouses or signposts marking the way. Many of his still-life paintings can be viewed as vanitas images. Even the simple Apples on a Table (1953) carries the warning of imminent decay.
The exhibition also features The Accident (1940), Hillier’s modernised rendering of the deposition of Christ. Alongside the painting is the preliminary drawing, demonstrating how the artist worked up his subjects, often over years. His superb drawing skills, honed at the Slade under the professor Henry Tonks, were an integral part of his working practice, a detailed drawing almost always preceding a finished painting.
When working to commission, however, Hillier’s personal iconography was largely set aside. Commissions encouraged some of his finest work, and this exhibition contains some important examples – in his designs for Shell, in the 1956 painting of Portishead B commissioned by the Central Electricity Board, and the 1958 painting Coventry Cathedral under Construction.
Invalided out of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve following a nervous breakdown, Hillier settled in Somerset, where his vision gradually darkened. In his paintings, Somerset became a place dominated by winter, with bare trees and plenty of mud.
His disaffection with rural life in wartime Britain can be seen in works such as The Argument and Barns in Winter (both 1943). But every summer he spent long periods abroad, drawing in Portugal, Spain and France. Through the winter months, Hillier painted from these drawings, as well as from his immediate surroundings.
He developed a quasi-monastic working practice, with long hours in his studio. Each meticulously finished painting would take at least a month to complete.
Though often bleak, even the most forbidding subject is redeemed by the brilliance of Hillier’s execution. Apparently ordinary objects, acutely observed, are given a portentous presence. His paintings continue to resonate across the years. Hillier’s stature as a major 20th-century artist is amply demonstrated in this exhibition.
Jenny Pery is an artist and art historian
Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund; Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants; South West Heritage Trust; Friends of the Museum of Somerset
Drive Creative Studio
South West Heritage Trust
South West Heritage Trust
18 April 2020