Joe Tilson: the Pop artist who dodged Hitler’s torpedoes and life on a building site

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The 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 the building trade before national service in the Royal Air Force was followed by art college. In 1955, he was awarded the Rome Prize and spent a year in Italy before returning to London where he met David Hockney, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield, among others. Shortly afterwards, 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 member 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 is better known there than in the UK. It is perhaps because, as he has said, “in Italy they have huge respect for artists [whereas] in England, it’s ‘oh, dodgy chancer fucking artists!’” Tilson is currently showing work in two London shows—at Marlborough and Cristea Roberts Gallery—and is the subject of a new monograph by Marco Livingstone.

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

Joe Tilson: We were a working-class family. My father, poor chap! He was born in the Walworth Road [south London]. He was a messenger, then he joined Cable & Wireless. He possessed the hi-tech communications device of the period: a Morse code transmitter.

War came. We were going to take a ship to Canada, but somehow we missed it. The ship was torpedoed and all the children on it died. There was no school then; nothing went on because of the war. At the age of eight, I decided to be an artist. My dad’s reaction was, “Rubbish. Get a proper job!” and I was forced to learn a trade. I went to the Brixton School of Building from 13. I started with bricklaying, then plastering, joinery, plumbing. I learned to use machines to make things. I started at 14 at a factory making wooden tables; I spent all day screwing hinges onto tables. I could still make you a table now, if you wanted one.

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

What luck! I arrived at St Martin’s and who also arrived? Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. It’s like saying I was in Holland and I met this bloke called Rembrandt. I’m still in touch with Frank. He rang me about my latest exhibitions. I don’t see much of Frank; no one sees Frank. Once he wanted to draw me: [I thought] Jesus, screw this! You become a slave for Frank. It’s Tuesday at two o’clock forever. Later he came to Wiltshire, to the old rectory where we lived. He said, “I would like to do an etching of you.” We had a printing press, so I said OK. I prepared a plate: all hands-on stuff. It was a day of preparatory sketches with Frank that time, but [it did not take] weeks, months and years.

Joe Tilson’s Breaking the Rules at Cristea Roberts Gallery in London features more than 45 works, including many recent ones, and focuses on the artist’s printmaking output

Photo: Sam Roberts Photography

When you were coming up, the art crowd included some hard-living people who frequented the dives of Soho, 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 knew, and they’re not here anymore: of course, I am 94. I pick up the paper and read about addiction. When I was a child, nobody had heard of drugs; they only existed in crime fiction. What is this mania to take drugs? If you go back through the history of painting, of European art, you find drunkards, idiots, geniuses, hard workers, people who were deeply religious: all sorts of people.

Tell us about your new exhibitions.

Everything I do is thanks to Hitler, in a way. The Marlborough gallery, where I’ve exhibited since the 1960s, was founded by two people from Vienna, [Harry] Fischer and [Franz] Levai [later Frank Lloyd], who fled the Nazis. They started the gallery after the war. Hitler’s hatred of Jews pushed to us wonderful people of real talent.

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 A-Z Box of Friends and Family (1963) and includes work by Auerbach, Peter Blake, Hockney, my wife Jos, and Anna, my daughter. The third [at Cristea Roberts] is small, recent works.

The best thing is to go to the gallery. What artists say about their work, I wouldn’t take any notice of that. A lot of people think: “There’s the meaning.” No, no. The meaning’s in you. People don’t apply themselves to art. They take it superficially. But art is a lot of hard work. It takes training, it takes travel. People have got to work at it. To understand art is very, very difficult.

The problem is not in the art. It’s whether people are capable of appreciating it. I know an awful lot about the visual arts: Giotto, Michelangelo and others. I spend my life looking at art; I’m deeply involved in the history of art. Whereas I know nothing about music. I don’t understand it at all.

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

We first met Ian because of Peter Blake, who is a great lover of pop music and particularly of Ian; who was a student of his at art college in Walthamstow. And yes, later on my daughter married him. I loved his music—he was a wonderful man, a great performer—but he could be difficult. We went to the dog races together but Ian wasn’t 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 muscles in my left arm—I can’t raise it.

Pyanopsia Version B (1982) is among works in Marlborough’s concurrent shows: Modest Materials, a career retrospective, and A-Z Box of Friends and Family, featuring artists including Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi

Courtesy Marlborough Gallery

You first earned a living through manual labour. What do you think of the incredibly rich and famous artists of today who don’t get their hands dirty at all, and leave the practical stuff to their assistants?

Everybody must do what they want. Studios making things for artists have existed since the Middle Ages. The studios of the Renaissance were based on boys entering a trade. If you ere in Florence, you went into the building trade, helping to build the Duomo. The kind of work you mention is just the art of this period. There are artists who were hugely well known who have long since fallen out of the spotlight, like [Alexandre] Cabanel [1823-89] or [Marcelle] Bergerol [1901-89]. People don’t know how fickle fame and fortune are. Artists you think of as untouchably great vanish like a puff of smoke.

When Boris Johnson was prime minister, he had a set of your prints, Nine Muses (2005), in his flat at Downing Street.

Ah ha! What a joke! I’m not pleased, in the sense that I don’t admire Boris Johnson because I think he’s a complete phoney and has not been good news for British politics. Brexit has plunged the art world into deep shit. I can’t print in Italy anymore; it now takes three months for work to go from Verona to London. My relationship with the art world has been destroyed.

Are you interested in posterity?

No, no interest whatsoever. There’s nothing you can do about the meaning of your work. Life’s life. I just take it the way it comes. So much depends on chance. My whole life is informed by the fact that dear Hitler arranged to sink that ship and I wasn’t on it.

Biography

Born: 1928 London

Lives and works: London and Italy

Education: 1949-52 Saint Martin’s School of Art; 1952-55 Royal College of Art

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

Represented by: Cristea Roberts Gallery and Marlborough

Joe Tilson: Modest Materials and A-Z Box of Friends and Family, Marlborough, London, until 3 June

Joe Tilson: Breaking the Rules, Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, until 17 June

• Marco Livingstone, Joe Tilson, Lund Humphries, 224pp, £45 (hb)

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