Home Arts the pop artist who dodged Hitler’s torpedoes and life on a construction site

the pop artist who dodged Hitler’s torpedoes and life on a construction site

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Veteran British artist Joe Tilson is associated with the emergence of Pop art in Britain and is a contemporary of Peter Blake and Frank Auerbach. He grew up in south London and trained in building before national service in the Royal Air Force was attended by art school. In 1955, he received the Prix de Rome and spent a year in Italy before returning to London where he met David Hockney, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield, among others. Soon after, he and his family moved to rural Wiltshire and his practice began to incorporate a wide range of materials including stone, straw and rope. In 1991 Tilson became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

However, the artist has now spent much of his life in Italy, where he has homes in the Tuscan hills and in Venice, and he is better known there than in the UK. Maybe it’s because, as he said, “in Italy they have great respect for artists [whereas] in England, it’s ‘oh, luck fucking dodgy artists!’ Tilson currently has works in two London exhibitions, at Marlborough and Cristea Roberts Gallery, and is the subject of a new monograph by Marco Livingstone.

What artists say about their work, I wouldn’t care

The Art Newspaper: How did you become an artist? Was there an interest in art at home when you were growing up?

Joe Tilson: We were a working-class family. My father, poor thing! He was born in Walworth Road [south London]. He was a courier, then he joined Cable & Wireless. He had the state-of-the-art communication device of the time: a Morse code transmitter.

The war has come. We were going to take a boat to Canada, but we missed it. The ship was torpedoed and all the children on board died. There was no school then; nothing happened because of the war. At the age of eight, I decided to be an artist. My father’s reaction was: “Nonsense. Get yourself a real job!” and I was forced to learn a trade. I went to Brixton School of Building from the age of 13. I started with masonry, then plastering, plumbing. I learned how to use machines to make things. I started at 14 years old in a factory that made wooden tables; I spent all day screwing hinges on tables. I could still get you a table now, if you wanted one.

After military service, you went to art school where you formed lasting friendships with artists who also had distinguished careers, including Frank Auerbach.

What luck! I arrived in St Martin and who arrived too? Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. That’s like saying I was in Holland and I met this guy called Rembrandt. I’m still in contact with Frank. He called me about my latest shows. I don’t see much Frank; nobody sees Frank. Once, he wanted to draw me: [I thought] Jesus, fuck that! You become Frank’s slave. It’s Tuesday at two o’clock forever. Later he came to Wiltshire, to the old vicarage where we lived. He said, “I would like to make an engraving of you.” We had a print shop, so I said OK. I prepared a plate: all the practical stuff. It was a day of preparatory sketches with Frank that time, but [it did not take] weeks, months and years.

Joe Tilson breaks the rules at the Cristea Roberts Gallery in London features over 45 works, many recent, and focuses on the artist’s printmaking output

Photo: Sam Roberts Photography

When you came up, the artsy crowd included tough-ass people who frequented Soho nightclubs, and you knew Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

It’s hard to imagine your life in retrospect. Different paths and bifurcations would have led me to death. I look around and see the people I used to know, and they’re gone: of course, I’m 94 years old. I pick up the newspaper and read about addiction. When I was a child, no one had heard of drugs; they existed only in detective fiction. What is this mania for taking drugs? If you go back in the history of painting, of European art, you find drunkards, idiots, geniuses, hard workers, deeply religious people: all kinds of people.

Tell us about your new exhibitions.

Everything I do is thanks to Hitler, in a way. The Marlborough Gallery, where I have exhibited since the 1960s, was founded by two people from Vienna, [Harry] Fisher and [Franz] got up [later Frank Lloyd], who fled the Nazis. They started the gallery after the war. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews brought wonderful, truly talented people to us.

This time I have a big show downstairs – my regular show, like the ones I’ve done since the 1960s. The second show is based on Friends and Family AZ Box (1963) and includes works by Auerbach, Peter Blake, Hockney, my wife Jos and Anna, my daughter. The third [at Cristea Roberts] is small, recent works.

The best is to go to the gallery. What artists say about their work, I wouldn’t take into account. A lot of people think, “That’s the meaning. No no. The meaning is within you. People don’t apply themselves to art. They take it superficially. But art is a lot of hard work. You have to train, you have to travel. People have to work on it. Understanding art is very, very difficult.

The problem is not in the art. It’s about whether people are able to appreciate it. I know a lot about the visual arts: Giotto, Michelangelo and others. I spend my life looking at art; I am deeply involved in art history. Although I don’t know anything about music. I do not understand at all.

However, you had a musician in the family: the late Ian Dury was your son-in-law.

We first met Ian through Peter Blake, who is a big fan of pop music and especially Ian; who was a student of his at Walthamstow School of Art. And yes, later my daughter married him. I loved his music – he was a wonderful man, a great performer – but he could be difficult. We used to go to dog races together but Ian was not a funny Cockney, like his image. He was a very sophisticated and intelligent man. Like him, I had polio, which left me with no real muscle in my left arm – I can’t lift it.

Version B of Pyanopsie (1982) is among works in Marlborough’s concurrent exhibitions: Modest materialsa career retrospective, and Friends and Family AZ Boxfeaturing artists such as Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi

Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery

You first earned your living through manual labor. What do you think of today’s insanely rich and famous artists who don’t get their hands dirty at all and leave the hands-on to their assistants?

Everyone must do what they want. Workshops for making objects for artists have existed since the Middle Ages. Renaissance workshops were based on boys entering a trade. If you Here in Florence, you got into building by participating in the construction of the Duomo. The kind of work you mention is just the art of that period. There are extremely well-known artists who have long since disappeared from the spotlight, like [Alexandre] cabanel [1823-89] Or [Marcelle] Bergerol [1901-89]. People don’t know how unstable fame and fortune are. Artists you consider untouchable disappear like a puff of smoke.

When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister he had a set of your fingerprints, nine muses (2005), in his apartment in Downing Street.

Ah ha! What joke! I’m not happy, in the sense that I don’t admire Boris Johnson because I think he’s completely wrong and hasn’t been good news for British politics. Brexit has thrown the art world into deep shit. I can no longer print in Italy; it now takes three months of work to go from Verona to London. My relationship with the art world was destroyed.

Are you interested in posterity?

No, no interest. You can’t do anything about the meaning of your work. Life is life. I take it as it comes. It all depends on chance. My whole life is marked by the fact that dear Hitler managed to sink this ship and that I was not on board.


Born: 1928 London

Lives and works: London and Italy

Education: 1949-52 St. Martin School of Art; 1952-55 royal college of art

The key shows: 1962 Marlborough Gallery, London; 1964 Venice Biennale; 1971 Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam; 1979 Vancouver Art Gallery; 1984 Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol; 1990 Centro Culturale Fontanella Borghese, Rome; 1991 Plymouth City Museum; 1995 Palazzo Pubblico, Siena; 1997 Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana; 2000 Galleria Comunale d’Arte, Cesena; 2002 Royal Academy of Arts, London

Represented by: Cristea Roberts and Marlborough Gallery

Joe Tilson: modest materials And Friends and Family AZ BoxMarlborough, London, until June 3

Joe Tilson: breaking the rulesCristea Roberts Gallery, London, until June 17

•Marco Livingstone, Joe TilsonLund Humphries, 224 pages, £45 (hb)

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