Tristram Paul Hillier, RA (1905-1983) First absorbing the influences of Cubism and Surrealism, Tristram Hillier made a unique contribution to modern British art. He stopped painting in the open air, and produced drawings that he then developed into oils and temperas in the studio. Making use of sable brushes, he worked meticulously to create smooth surfaces that suggest silence and stillness. Whether landscape or still life, secular or sacred, his subjects are simultaneously detailed and spare, real and surreal. Tristram Hillier was born in Peking, China, on 11 April 1905, the youngest of the four children of Edward Guy Hillier CMG and his wife, Ada (née Everett). His father went blind at the age of 30 and, on the advice of a friend, sought comfort in the Roman Catholic church.
Nevertheless, despite this disability, he rose to become manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
Soon after his birth, Tristram Hillier moved to England with his mother and siblings, and settled in Angmering, Sussex. He first attended a convent school at Cavendish Square, in London, where he was ‘the only male child among a multitude of little girls’ (as he describes in his autobiography, Leda and the Goose, London: Longmans, Green, 1954, page 20). Then, at the age of nine, in 1914, he joined his elder brother, Maurice, at Downside, the Catholic public school in Somerset. This became such a refuge for him that, for a while, he even considered becoming a monk. Such thoughts may have been affected by the deaths, in 1917, of both his mother and his brother, the latter during active service in northern France as a Second Lieutenant in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
Hillier left Downside early in 1923, and returned to Peking to study Chinese. While there, he and his father agreed that he should go into business and, to that end, he came back to England in the autumn and began to read Economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Then, soon after the death of his father in 1924, he left university without taking his degree and began an apprenticeship with Casselton Elliot & Co, a firm of accountants. His boredom with the tasks that he was set led him to doodle so often on his blotting paper that the cashier suggested that he take painting lessons instead. He asked the advice of his former headmaster, Abbot Sigebert Trafford, who responded by introducing him to the painter and illustrator, Charles Edmund Brock. On looking through his drawings, Brock encouraged him to show them to Henry Tonks, Professor at the Slade School of Art, in London, and Tonks immediately offered him a place. Hillier moved into a small flat in Fitzroy Street, and began to work in the Slade’s antique room in March 1926.
Soon finding the days at the Slade too short, he also joined evening classes at Westminster School of Art given by Bernard Meninsky. However, when he applied Meninsky’s geometric approach to his drawings in the life room at the Slade, he met with Tonks’s disapproval, and soon felt constrained by the Slade’s traditional methods.
In 1927, after 18 months at the Slade, Hillier took the advice of Meninsky to ‘Go to Paris’ – though only after he had spent the summer in the Mediterranean fishing port of Cassis. While there, he befriended a number of artists, including Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Ronald Penrose and Jean Varda. On arriving in Paris, he settled at a small hotel in the Rue de la Grande-Chaumière, in Montparnasse, and took classes along the street at the Académie Colarossi, before transferring to the Atelier André Lhote, in nearby Rue d’Odessa. While in Paris, he met many of the Surrealists, and began to absorb the influence of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, as well as that of Braque, Matisse and Picasso. These influences could clearly be seen in the works included in his first exhibition, held in 1929, at Galerie Barreiro, on the Rue de Seine. Two years later, in April 1931, he held his first solo show in London, at the Lefèvre Galleries, and fromthat date his work became popular with collectors.
During a stay in Cassis in September 1930, Hillier and Varda sailed across to Toulon, where they met with a group of artist friends centred on Edward Burra. These included Irene Rose Hodgkins, known as Georgiana, the daughter of an off-course bookmaker, who had studied at the Royal College of Art. She and Hillier began a relationship and, soon after their return to Paris late in 1930, she discovered that she was pregnant. They decided to leave the capital and, with the help of Roland Penrose, bought the Château de Mansencôme, a ruined castle in Gascony. More bohemian than Hillier, Georgiana agreed to marry only just before she gave birth to their twin sons, Benjamin and Jonathan, in 1931. Financial crises forced the family to return to England in 1932, and then led to the break up of the marriage, which was finally dissolved in 1935.
In 1933, Hillier consolidated his developing reputation as a leading British Modernist artist with his highly personal interpretation of Surrealism and Cubism. In February of that year, he held a second successful solo show at the Lefèvre Galleries, which had a catalogue with a foreword by his new friend, the South-African-born poet, Roy Campbell. Then, in the October, he was included in the important exhibition, ‘Art Now’, at the Mayor Gallery, curated by the leading critic, Herbert Read. By the end of the year he had replaced Frances Hodgkins as a member of Unit One, a new group of British Modernists that had been founded by Paul Nash (and also included John Bigge, Edward Burra and Edward Wadsworth, among others). The group’s only exhibition, including work by Hillier, took place at the Mayor Gallery in the spring of 1934. After Unit One folded in 1935, Hillier never again joined another such group.
Keen to go travelling again, Hillier would spend almost all of the remainder of the 1930s on the Continent. In the summer of 1934, he visited Greece with the artist and writer, Captain ‘Dick’ Wyndham, to meet up with the archaeologist, Seton Lloyd. Then, over the winter, he rented Max Ernst’s studio in Paris, though he soon found that he disliked working in a block of studios, in close proximity to other artists. So, in the spring of 1935, he bought a second-hand car and motored south, staying for a last time at the Château de Mansencôme before putting it up for sale, and then going on to Tossa de Mar, on the Costa Brava. There he formed a close friendship with the French Surrealist artist, André Masson. Together they went on a walking tour that ended in Madrid, and then joined Roy Campbell and his family in Toledo. Hillier returned to London in May 1936, two months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Despite taking a studio at World’s End, Chelsea, at the beginning of the summer of 1936, Hillier soon left England again. He went to Austria with Seton Lloyd, initially to take in the Salzburg Festival, and while there they came across the fellow Unit One artist, John Bigge, and his wife. The Bigges invited them to join them at the Schloss St Jakob am Thurn, where they were paying guests. At the Schloss, he met Leda Hardcastle, who had played small parts in a number of films, and was the daughter of Captain Sydney Hardcastle CB RN, retired naval engineer and inventor of a First World War torpedo. They soon fell in love and, after a brief engagement, married at the British Consulate in Vienna early in 1937. Settling in a small house near the Schloss St Jakob, they took many trips to northern Italy, where Hillier gave his new wife lessons in the history of art while absorbing the influence of especially fifteenth- century painters. He began to experiment with a new approach to his art, no longer painting en plein air, but producing drawings that he then worked up in the studio.
In the autumn of 1937, affected by the changing political climate in Europe, Hillier and his wife made the decision to leave Austria and settle in France. Initially, they borrowed a cottage near Vence, in Provence; then, in the following summer, they decided to settle near Etretat, on the Normandy coast. Leda’s father bought them L’Ormerie, a small eighteenth-century château to the south of the village of Criquetot-L’Esnival. Georges Braque lived further east, at Vargengeville-sur-Mer, and became a friend at this time, Hillier having long considered him one of the finest artists of the twentieth century. Wadsworth – another admirer of Braque – stayed with Hillier in the summer of 1939, and they worked together around the coast right up until the outbreak of the Second World War.
In May 1940, Leda gave birth to their first daughter, Mary, in a nursing home in Le Havre. Only 12 days later, the German invasion of France forced Hillier and his family to flee the country and return to England. He became a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves, serving in the North and South Atlantic and then, as a liaison officer to the Free French Naval Forces, in Sierra Leone. In 1944, he was invalided out with the rank of Lieutenant.
At the end of the war, Hillier and his family went back to Normandy, only to find that L’Ormerie was an unrecoverable wreck. So they returned to England and, in the spring of 1946, began to look for a home in Somerset, eventually settling at Yew Tree Cottage, in East Pennard, near Shepton Mallet. A second daughter, Anna-Clare, was born in Wells in 1950. The rural location allowed both Hillier and Leda to pursue their pleasure in riding and, more importantly, provided him with a peaceful environment in which to pursue his art. Living only a few miles from Downside, he re-engaged with his faith, re-entering the Catholic Church and producing an increasing number of religious subjects. However, he still travelled, making frequent visits to Portugal and Spain. And, though he published an autobiography, entitled Leda and the Goose, in 1954, he remained productive for another two decades. The results of this new phase were exhibited in London, both at regular solo shows at Arthur Tooth & Sons (between 1946 and 1973) and at the Royal Academy. (He became an Associate in 1957, and a full Royal Academician a decade later.) A retrospective was held at Worthing Art Gallery in the autumn of 1960, and an exhibition devoted to his drawings at the Langton Gallery, London, in June 1973. Then, in 1975, a solo show was mounted by the Pieter Wenning Gallery in Johannesburg.
Tristram Hillier died in hospital in Bristol on 18 January 1983. A touring retrospective, entitled ‘A Timeless Journey’, accompanied by a catalogue by Nicholas Usherwood, took place between the June and December of the same year, and included the Royal Academy as its London venue.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Tate; The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art (The Lightbox, Woking) and Pallant House Gallery (Chichester); the Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena, CA); the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa); and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney).
Further reading Martin Levy, rev, ‘Hillier, Tristram Paul (1905-1983)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 27, pages 227-228; Jenny Pery, Painter Pilgrim: The Art and Life of Tristram Hillier, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2008