The Flatford Chart Paintings with the smaller Cloud Studies

By William Tillyer


Travelling between my home and studio here in North Yorkshire, I’m fortunate to drive along what a motoring journal described as “one of England’s great drives, great scenery, and empty roads”. Along this particular route, the sky becomes dominant and cloud-watching an addiction.

My paintings often revert to using well-worn motifs as a vehicle for my further ruminations on painting. Obvious ones being The Portrait, The Still Life, The Landscape and The Figure. I most often rely on Landscape or Still Life, particularly in my ongoing Vase and Arrangement drawings and paintings.

With the Helmsley Sky Studies I have borrowed heavily from Constable and his Hampstead Sky Studies of 1821. The decision to borrow from Constable is not arbitrary, I have long been a devotee, and living here in the North East of England between moors and coast, I’ve been a constant sky and cloud observer. By taking such well-known studies of clouds, often with references to trees and growth at the bottom edge giving scale, one is able to invoke all that the chosen image implies or suggests - taking it for ones own and putting it to work in an altered form.

I have imagined that Constable's father, at Flatford Mill, would have been a constant ‘sky watcher’, perhaps putting together an observers ‘cloud chart,’ vital for a miller dependent on weather and water as his power source. Hence my title, The Flatford Chart Paintings with the smaller Cloud Studies, I have simply substituted Helmsley for Hampstead. Much of the foregoing refers to the kind of image I wanted for this new group of work; one which invokes so much, dictating colour, palette, pigment and tone, as well as a romantic, lyrical vision by default.

Historically the paint support, i.e. canvas or panel, has played a passive role in painting, but in the 20th century paint, support and later the gallery wall and the gallery space began to influence the image. Ref. Hardware: Variations on Theme of Encounter. W. Tillyer 2002.

Since 1968 I have made use of the lattice grid as a vehicle for the support, content and drawing of my images. In 1978 I first started using metal mesh lattice grid as a support for collage and paint. This was all an endeavour to have image, paint and support work as one; to have the eye travel through the picture plane, with the lattice grid working as drawing, geometrical contrast and metaphor, as well as a functional support for the paint. Ref. P32-40. Norbert Lynton monograph / William Tillyer: Against the Grain

The Helmsley Sky Studies are initially worked from the back of the panel, paint is pushed and forced into the lattice, the work is then modified in a traditional way from the front of the panel. The message, i.e. ‘what the artist has to say’, is as much in the way of working as is the image chosen to carry the paint. They are inseparable: one being of physicality, the other of illusion. It is at the conjunction of these apparently opposing disciplines that the painting begins. I have called the largest of the Helmsley Sky Studies ‘Anonymous Handling’ and the working method I have outlined above is exactly that, anonymous. The perforated panel dictates and directs the paint form and mark, unlike autographic brush handling of more traditional painting. This composition, made up of nine panels, also reflects the earlier Flatford Chart Paintings - nine gesso panels, where I used a watercolour technique, countered by a single impasto mark, referencing cloud, air, organisms, pebbles or other organic matter. Ref. illustration P.8. Eight Clouds 1966 Norbert Lynton monograph / William Tillyer: Against the Grain

The image of these chart pieces again refers back to Constable in terms of picturing clouds and cataloguing them. However the opposing contrast is through the viscosity of the paint, rather than the imposed physicality of the lattice.

In the daily drive to my North Yorkshire studio I’m reminded of another text: Clouds of William Tillyer by G Polonsky 2009 “On the 14 mile drive between Tillyer’s home and studio, a post box, red and solid amidst a wilderness of late summer growth, marks the half way point. The only one for miles around, it is startling in its brightness and boxiness. Sweeping past it on this, for me, unfamiliar road on the North York Moors, it offers a clear and dramatic parallel with the leitmotif that has underscored Tillyer’s work throughout his life: the disjunction between hard and soft, the geometric and the organic, the classical and the romantic; and indeed the tension within the work itself, in reconciling these inherently contradictory positions.” This simple observation states my need to ‘prick the bubble’ and operate in today’s ever narrowing gap between order and chaos, the romantic, scientific, rural and urban, and most of all between control and letting go.

In setting down these brief notes, I have started with the least important aspects of these or any other body of work. It is the very last point: that gap, that space between, for which I have no real name that is important and in the end that which I am unable to verbalise.