Book Review: Painter Pilgrim. The Art and Life of Tristram Hillier

Jenny Pery, Royal Academy of Arts, 2008, £25, ISBN 978-1-905711-18-5

A short book on an individual artist who is probably not widely known beyond a narrow circle should try to sketch out the artist’s life; it should resist the temptation to be too hagiographic; and it should provide as many illustrations as possible so as to enable the reader to start forming his own views as to the importance of the artist’s achievements. It is a pleasure to report that this book does all the above, setting the scene for someone to take the next step in analysing what Hillier’s work was actually about.

One element to Hillier’s life which should not be ignored when assessing his work is his Roman Catholicism. Before going up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, he studied under the Benedictine monks at Downside and, after 20 years of hedonism and then War, he returned strongly to his faith following 1945. Religious belief does not exactly explain his pictures, although some are explicitly religious in subject-matter. What it may do is to provide a context in which the viewer may seek to approach the thought behind the canvas. For Hillier’s pictures are, in some way, contemplative in feel. Man is largely absent or insignificant; landscapes are crisp and hard and empty; trees have broken branches; remnants of human life, particularly cast-aside tools, are scattered about some of the pictures. The modern world rarely intrudes and, when it does, it may be contrasted unsympathetically with old buildings in the background.

One can see how Hillier’s work is said to be Surrealist. It is reminiscent of that of de Chirico and of Edward Wadsworth. But I think more could be got out of it by putting it into the context of those British artists of the 20th century who in some way attempted to wrestle with subjects which were spiritual. He was almost contemporary with Sutherland, Bacon and Collins, and comparing and contrasting his approach to work with theirs would be a starting point; but he could also be put alongside Stanley Spencer. This, I believe, is the way to look for meaning in Hillier’s work – as a serious and skilful artist striving to say something meaningful about human life and man’s works against a background of passing time, when religious belief was being sucked from the mainstream of civilised life. The cracking houses; the snapped branches; the fluttering of washing in the breeze say what he wanted to say about man’s impermanence in God’s world.