Artist profile - Tristram Hillier

The Argument by Tristram Hillier, 1943, oil on panel, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Lancas

The Argument by Tristram Hillier, 1943, oil on panel, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Lancashire - Credit: submitted

The life and work of a hugely influential mid-20th century artist is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Museum of Somerset. STEPHEN MOSS reveals more about the extraordinary art and its deep connection to the Somerset landscape.

Tristram Hillier

Tristram Hillier - Credit: submitted

Tristram Hillier is, if not quite forgotten, certainly overlooked compared to his more famous contemporaries, such as Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Henry Moore. Yet as this new exhibition shows, his work has not just stood the test of time, but is as fresh and powerful as when he created it, during the years before and after World War Two.

At the entrance to the exhibition, curator Sam Astill, Head of Museums for the South West Heritage Trust, points out the juxtaposition of two paintings, whose subject and style could hardly be more different. One is a bright, sun-drenched image of a town in Portugal and the other a wintry, almost monochrome painting of a bleak winter landscape near Glastonbury. These two images perfectly evoke the dichotomy at the centre of Hillier's life: although after the war he was based in Somerset, he spent long periods living and working in the sunnier climes of Spain and Portugal.

While in Somerset, he mostly painted scenes of the Moors and Levels in autumn and winter, often with a single country lane stretching off into the distance, symbolising the start of a journey. His work is full of intricate detail, especially the branches and twigs of the trees, and it has an otherworldly feel: realistic, yet at the same time highly idiosyncratic.

His landscapes remind me of the photographs of another great Somerset resident, the photographer Don McCullin. Both men brilliantly capture the stillness and melancholy of this unique watery landscape, with its big skies and pollarded willows emerging like clenched fists from the peaty soil. In Hillier's case, these images could hardly be more different in tone and mood from the sunlit, multicoloured images of Iberia.

Barns in Winter, 1943 (oil on panel) by Tristram Hillier. Bridgeman Images

Barns in Winter, 1943 (oil on panel) by Tristram Hillier. Bridgeman Images - Credit: Bridgeman Images

Tristram Hillier's connection with Somerset dated back to his childhood, in the early years of the 20th century. Born in 1905 in China, where his father was a diplomat, at the age of nine he was sent to boarding school at Downside, near Bath. After a brief and unsuccessful spell at Cambridge, and working as a trainee accountant in London, he decided to follow his passions and retrain as an artist. In the late 1920s he relocated to Paris, then moved with his first wife to the South of France, where he lived a bohemian, hedonistic lifestyle, and became part of an artistic circle that included Picasso and Dali.

All was going well for Hillier until the coming of World War Two. In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, he and his young family were forced to flee to the UK. After two unhappy years in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was discharged and settled at East Pennard near Glastonbury, where he would live for the rest of his days. With the move, came a change in his artistic style: the carefree, quasi-surrealist images from before the war gave way to a more heightened, realistic and reflective style, yet always retaining the distinctively off beat quality of all his work.

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Sam Astill notes the absence of humanity in many paintings. He says: "There is always a sense that something is not quite right, an eeriness; like an image from a horror film where people have vanished from the landscape."

Where he does include human figures - as in the The Accident - they are clearly influenced by Flemish artists such as Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. There is also a quirkily humorous touch to much of his work.

For the rest of his life, he lived a divided life: either enjoying the sunshine of the Iberian Peninsula or tramping the lanes and by-ways of the Levels. His final painting, Signpost 1980, placed at the very end of the exhibition, is for me the most striking. It shows another country lane, heading away from us into the centre of the picture. But this time the journey is cut short, with a T-junction marked by simple white wooden signpost pointing in two directions. It is clear that the artist had death on his mind.

Just three years later, in 1983, Tristram Hillier died at the age of 77. But nearly 40 years on, we can still appreciate the freshness, relevance and sheer wonder of his lifetime's work.

The Somerset landscape

Many of Tristram Hillier's Somerset paintings were inspired by the unique landscape around his home at East Pennard, a village roughly equidistant from Shepton Mallet, Castle Cary and Glastonbury in the south-east corner of the county. From here, Hillier could wander the lanes around the Somerset Moors and Levels: flat, waterlogged country characterised by water-filled rhynes (the local word for ditches), lined by rows of willow trees. Although the landscape appears superficially 'natural', like virtually all of the lowland English countryside the hand of humanity has had a huge influence on its appearance. Lying almost at sea level, this land would flood during the winter, creating fertile grasslands for farmers to graze their livestock in spring and summer. To control the water levels, rhynes were dug along the field boundaries, while droves were created to take animals to market. Later, vast amounts of peat were extracted, leaving unsightly, water-filled holes in the ground, which were eventually turned into nature reserves.

Stephen Moss is a naturalist and author based on the Somerset Levels. He is president of Somerset Wildlife Trust and teaches an MA in travel and nature writing at Bath Spa University.