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7 February 2024

Tristram Hillier, England’s quiet surrealist

The painter’s immaculate pictures of an off-kilter world are works of concentration and contemplation.

By Michael Prodger

The real world is not quite like the one painted by Tristram Hillier. His paintings are soundless, usually unpeopled and eerily still. Whatever the scene – a cluster of buildings, boats on a beach, bare trees by a country lane – he treated it as a still life, in both senses. Nothing moves; each element is placed with extreme care and painted with a crisp-edged meticulousness. As a young artist he had, he said, been buffeted by a “tornado of conflicting influences” but his mature pictures show the evocative quiet that settles when the storm has passed. His are paintings of concentration and contemplation.

Hillier (1905-83) was born in China where his father was a diplomat and banker, and travelled, he wrote, to “Europe from Peking for the first time at the age of six months in the company of my mother, my brother and sisters, a Japanese ‘Amah’ and two Chinese servants”. After finishing school, he agreed to his father’s request to pursue a career in business. However, he failed to finish an economics degree at Cambridge, so a brief, bored and unsuccessful career as an accountant came as no surprise. He trained instead at the Slade School of Art under the surgeon-artist Henry Tonks and topped up his lessons with instruction from the less doctrinaire Bernard Meninsky. It was Meninsky who told him that his real learning should be done in Paris and it was in France that he met Roger Fry and Roland Penrose – the great proselytiser for the surrealists – and encountered the work of Braque, Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico.

It was in France too that he met his first wife, Irene Rose Hodgkins, known as Georgiana, a bookmaker’s daughter who had attended the Royal College of Art. On discovering she was pregnant, the couple bought a chateau in Gascony but didn’t marry until the eve of the birth of their twin sons. The marriage, however, did not last.

By the mid Thirties Hillier was thought of as a significant modernist whose paintings, with the influence of De Chirico’s hauntingly empty town squares prominent, represented an anglophone amalgam of surrealism and cubism. By 1934, when he joined Unit One, Paul Nash’s short-lived avant-garde group, he had already held a number of successful solo shows. Ahead of Unit One’s only exhibition, he explained that the bricolage of abandoned objects – anchors, jugs, buckets, bits of clothing – that he scattered in his pictures was not intended to shock but to create “the sense of desolation”.

Although the atmosphere of the Thirties progressively darkened, there was little desolation in Hillier’s own life. He spent much of the decade abroad, travelling to Greece and Spain, where he became friends with André Masson, and then to Austria, a country he did not feel suited painters: “I imagine that this is due to the quality of its light. There is a lack of subtlety in the landscape.” Nevertheless, it suited him in other ways since it was in an Austrian schloss that he met Leda Hardcastle, a minor film actress and daughter of the inventor of the Hardcastle torpedo. They married in 1937 and travelled to Italy, where another influence was added to his art: like his fellow Slade student Winifred Knights, he imbibed the compositional clarity and restrained palette of Piero della Francesca and his fellow 15th-century painters.

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The newlyweds later settled at yet another chateau, this time near Étretat on the Normandy coast, whose cliffs Monet had painted obsessively in the 1880s. The couple’s first daughter was born there in 1940 but within days they had to flee as the Germans closed in. They were forced to abandon most of their possessions, including Hillier’s own paintings, and shamed a former friend into housing them after she initially shut the door in their faces (she later charged them for their brief stay).

One of Hillier’s friends was Edward Wadsworth – the First World War artist who had also helped design “dazzle” camouflage for warships – who encouraged him to specialise in marine paintings. So it was appropriate that Hiller’s war service was spent in the North and South Atlantic with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves and later liaising with the Free French Naval Forces in Sierra Leone.

It was in the years immediately following the Second World War that Hillier felt a twitch upon the thread. He had grown up a Catholic, a faith his father had embraced when he went blind at the age of 30, and had been educated at Downside School in Somerset, which he felt to be such a haven that he had considered becoming a monk.

Life had put distance between Hillier and his faith but he was brought back into the fold by the tough love of his former headmaster, Abbot Sigebert Trafford. When Hillier was commissioned to paint his portrait, they talked as he worked and it was clear, recalled Hillier, that Trafford “had little patience for my doubts and perplexities. ‘The trouble with you,’ he said, ‘is that you are too lazy to get out of your bed and go to mass in the morning. If you did that every day for a year you would achieve sufficient grace to see how ridiculous you are.’” Hillier was enraged by this “high-handed dismissal of the intellectual problems which had so long tormented me” but the abbot’s words had their effect.

This painting, The Vale from Cucklington (1944) predates his reconversion, but perhaps shows that his early yearnings towards the numinous had never really gone away. The picture is a faithful rendition of the village’s church of St Lawrence and the Blackmore Vale beloved of Thomas Hardy. The church’s origins reach back before the Reformation to the 13th century and the landscape beyond is largely unchanged from the time when England was Catholic.

Hillier painted the scene after he was invalided out of the navy and was staying at a cottage in Somerset, and if the picture is a meditation on traditional religion it also bears traces of the ongoing war. At first glance it looks to be a bit of Samuel Palmer-esque pastoral, but there are no worshippers here and the broken fence, the toppling gate draped with an incongruous piece of fabric, the abandoned bucket, the detritus on the road, the snapped branches, the manure (which, strangely, features in many of his paintings) speak of neglect, of disquiet, even foreboding. There is also a single gravestone – a tilted cross – that serves as a memento mori; for those away at war perhaps, or for all of us. What should be a rural idyll carries not just intimations of mortality but the prickle of menace.

Hillier was not the only mid-century artist to paint works of preternatural stillness; contemporaries such as Algernon Newton and Meredith Frampton also sought to slow and quieten the noise around them. It was, though, Hillier who best captured the obscure sense of a world slightly out of kilter. He once lamented that his technique had backed him into a corner and that he felt himself to be “the slave of my own style”, but it was precisely that style that allowed him to make definitive depictions of the nebulous and show just how closely the real and the surreal are aligned.

[See also: In praise of sluggish politics]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?