Artist Spotlight: Tristram Hillier


A major exhibition of the work of the English painter Tristram Hillier (1905-83) opens at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton on Saturday 9th November. ‘Landscapes of the Mind: The Art of Tristram Hillier’ brings together over 50 pictures from private lenders and from national and regional collections.

On this exciting occasion, we look back on his influences and highlights.


Las lavanderas, 1965 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier, (1905-83)
/ Touchstones Rochdale, Lancashire, UK


Hillier's Estate have recently launched a new exhibition. The loans have been made possible by support from Arts Council England and from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. The Weston Loan Programme, created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to help smaller and local authority museums borrow art and artefacts from national collections.


Sign post, 1980 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83) / Private Collection


Hillier's competent drawing skills were honed during his education at the Slade School of Art, particularly while studing under Henry Tonks. His techniques and skills informed his studies. Catholisicm had underpinned much of his later life, and Hillier showed this influence in his work. Aside from the surrealist style paintings, Hillier ventured into the representation of religious subjects, with his series of the ‘Seven Sacraments’, muted sketches focused around the hands depicting the seven sacraments in Christianity. 


Seven Sacraments: Ordination (pencil on paper),
Tristram Hillier (1905-83) / Private Collection


Religious themes were also present in his paintings, which had realist elements underpinned by his sublime drawing skills. Perhaps the most famous and overt example of religious influence in his painted work is in his piece The Crucifixion, in which Jesus is shown crucified in a then modern day setting. It is very visually arresting.


The Crucifixion, 1954 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83) /
The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art / Bridgeman Images


Hillier had intriguing beginnings. Born in China and educated in England, he had studied Chinese alongside playing Polo, and had even breifly considered becoming a Trappist monk. He returned to England and went to Cambridge where he studied for a couple of years. Following this, he then went to Paris to study under André Lhote, a French Cubist painter. Hillier is known to have travelled extensively and lived in Paris before the War, moving to England after it had ended. While in Paris, he became a part of the Unit One Group, an Avant-Garde Modernist group led by Paul Nash.


The Vale from Cucklinton, 1945 (tempera on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83)
/ Private Collection / Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Images


Hillier’s paintings move between still lives, Portuguese, Spanish and English landscapes, which although quite starkly different, retain a sense of desolation that appears to be a common thread throughout his work.


Haymaking, 1943 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83)
/ York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), UK / Bridgeman Images

The inclusion of individual figures in his landscapes is few and far between, with figures only appearing seemingly as background characters, immersed in their own tasks and becoming one with the landscape itself – as you can see within Las Lavanderas, painted in 1965.

Ship Propulsion, 1950 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83) / Private Collection

The absence of life within his paintings combined with his surrealist style and the inclusion of a mechanical thread through the images creates an ethereal atmosphere. Ship Propulsion, painted in 1950 is a key example of this, with the bold mechanical imagery contrasted with the fluidity of the shore and natural world around it, a contrast only heightened by Hillier's use of complementary colours.


Galway Harbour, 1947 (oil on canvas), Tristram Hillier (1905-83) / Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK

“Landscapes of the Mind: The Art of Tristram Hillier” will be in the Museum of Somerset from 9th November 2019 – 18th April 2020. The collection of over 50 pictures lent from collections and private lenders will be accompanied by works from Nash, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth.

For more information about the exhibition and to watch a short film, click here.

Discover all our Tristram Hillier content on Bridgeman Images.


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