After studying at the Slade under Professor Tonks, Tristram Hillier moved to Paris in 1927 where he lived for fourteen years at the heart of the Surrealist movement and the International Surrealist exhibitions. Witnessing first hand the strange dreamscapes of Salvador Dalí, he rejected this ‘exaggerated’ Surrealism, explaining: unlike Mr. Dalí, I have no wish to shock people's sensibilities by juxtaposing the most unlikely of objects in an improbable landscape.
Hillier’s artistic interests lay in exploring the form, relatedness and order of objects in a composition. His life mixed conservative and conventional elements. Emotionally cut off from his parents from an early age and failing to enjoy the ‘clinical’ training of the Slade at that time, Hillier sought solace in a self-exploratory style of life and painting. The search for spiritual order led to descriptions of nature of his works as ‘religious’ and contemplative.
Hillier’s early period was spent in semi-isolation in the South of France. Around 1933 he was discovered by the British avant-garde scene and joined Paul Nash’s Unit One. After working with this group, Hillier entered a final stage in which he developed a more conservative realism. While this brought greater success in gaining patronage, it also earned him the disdain of his former colleagues who saw this as selling out to academia.
During the Second World War itself Hillier was not commissioned as a war artist. He had only left France at the last minute before its fall and became a naval officer instead. The post-war wreckage of France left him with a sense of dislocation, failing to fit in to English life while also refusing to return to the changed France. His paintings of Somerset after his return from Paris in 1941 are infused with a Surrealist otherworldliness.
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