The Daily Telegraph
Printmaker and sculptor hailed by The Daily Telegraph as ‘the forgotten king of British Pop Art’
JOE TILSON, who has died aged 95, was regarded as one of the leading pioneers of pop art in Britain in the 1960s. Spotted for the Marlborough Gallery in 1961 by John Kasmin, he was the first of a group of young art stars to launch the gallery into the Swinging Sixties with a highly successful first show in 1962.
He came to be associated with such artists as David Hockney, Peter Blake, Allen Jones and Richard Hamilton – all friends – but pop art took up only about half a decade of his career, and in any case his work was not typical of the movement.
When, for example, he made his A-Z Box of Friends & Family (1963), a portable grid-like construction resembling a printer’s tray, housing a collection of small paintings and constructions by new stars of the art world with different letters of the alphabet allotted to each person, Tilson’s own contribution was the box itself.
For Tilson trained in woodwork before moving to art and many of his vibrantly coloured, geometric “pop art” pieces involved carpentry as much as or more than painting. “Some of the older artists didn’t like my work because of that,’’ he told The Daily Telegraph in 2009. “They wanted me to make my mind up whether I was a painter or a sculptor.’’
He continued to defy categorisation. After he started making prints in 1963, and some were hung in the Marlborough Gallery window, the Printmakers Council objected on the grounds that they were not “original” because they had incorporated reproductions of images from magazines and newspapers. In response Tilson made a list of things he was not supposed to do in printmaking and deliberately broke every rule.
The machinations of the art market never interested him, however, and at the end of the 1960s Tilson turned his back on Swinging London, decamped to Wiltshire and began developing a new body of work, with roots in nature and myth.
In 2009 the Telegraph’s art market correspondent “CG” described him as “the forgotten king of British Pop Art”, though by that time he had featured in a major retrospective at the Royal Academy, and interest in him continued to revive with shows at leading galleries, while his works began to fetch good prices at auction.
Joseph Charles Tilson, a “Cockney from nowhere”, as he put it, was born in Lewisham, south London, on August 24 1928 to Frederick Tilson and his wife Ethel, née Saunders, working-class parents who had both worked as telegraphists in France during the First World War.
He decided he wanted to be a painter aged eight when he won a prize in a council competition, but his father, who “hated” art, dismissed the idea. His formal education ended early when the outbreak of war led to the closure of his school, leaving him, as he put it “unlettered and ignorant”.
When he was 13 his parents sent him to the Brixton School of Building, where he learnt bricklaying, masonry, woodwork and hand-carving, before starting work in a furniture factory aged 15. Between 1946 and 1949 he did his National Service in the RAF, and it was thanks to an ex-serviceman’s grant that he was able to pursue his passion for art, spending time in Italy and taking up a place at Saint Martin’s School of Art, where he became friends with Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Len Deighton.
He spent another three years as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art, where he came to know Richard Smith, Malcolm Morley and Peter Blake. After two years in Italy, from 1958 and 1963, he taught at St Martin’s and went on to teach at other colleges in Europe and the US.
In 1964 some of his mixed-media works were shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and by the middle of the decade he was at the centre of a fashionable coterie of artists and writers who frequented Hennekey’s pub on Portobello Road and sundry Soho watering holes and came together at informal gatherings in each other’s homes.
But after moving to Wiltshire Tilson sought to develop a style that would transcend fashion by drawing on motifs of Mediterranean mythology and arcane symbolism – “the eternal rather than the ephemeral”, as he put it. Although he began to use a wider variety of materials, including stone, straw and rope – and later glass – words and letters were always important features of his work, alphabets. His painting style moved towards loose brushwork rather than starkly outlined lettering and geometric shapes.
He worked for periods in Italy, where he had a second home and where, for some years, he was better known than in Britain. Elected to the National Academy of San Luca in Rome, his commissions included the banner for the 1996 Palio in Siena. “In Italy they have huge respect for artists,” Tilson told the Telegraph: “In England, it’s ‘oh, dodgy chancer f-----g artists’.”
It was an exaggeration to say that Tilson was forgotten in Britain. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1985 and a full Academician in 1991, but it was the Academy’s 2002 retrospective “Joe Tilson: Pop to Present” that put him firmly back on the map.
In 2009 the Cristea Roberts Gallery mounted a retrospective of his printed works; and in 2013 the Marlborough Gallery put on a survey exhibition, and both galleries held exhibitions earlier this year to mark his 95th birthday. Examples of his work are held by the Tate and the V&A, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other museums across Europe and North America.
In 2005 Tilson created a set of nine aquatints of the Greek muses as limitededition prints; one set was bought for the Government Art Collection, though he responded to news that it had found its way on to the walls of the prime ministerial flat at 10, Downing Street following its muchpublicised refurbishment under Boris Johnson with dismay. “It’s a joke,” Tilson said. “He’s a complete phoney.”
In 2019 Tilson was commissioned by the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn, who had been inspired by work he had done with Murano glass makers, to design a new stained glass window for the Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh. The window was unveiled in 2021.
In 1956 he married Joslyn Morton, daughter of the abstract artist Alistair Morton, who survives him with two daughters and a son.
Joe Tilson, born August 24 1928, died November 9 2023