William Tillyer, "Portrait, Head and Shoulders (Lattice)" (1978), acrylic on canvas and metal mesh, 24 x 28 inches (images courtesy Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, England)

England is the only advanced, industrialized country that I can think of where portraiture and postwar painting have become nearly interchangeable. One cannot think of painting in postwar England without recognizing the work of Michael Andrews (1928–1995), Frank Auerbach (born 1931), Francis Bacon (1909–1992), Lucien Freud (1922–2011), David Hockney (born 1937), Leon Kossoff (1926–2019), and Euan Uglow (1932–2000), all of whom are known for portraits that required the sitter to pose for hours. 

With the possible exception of Howard Hodgkin, not a single English abstract artist has attained anything comparable to the status achieved by Freud or Hockney. (Don’t titles such as “Mr and Mrs E. J. P.” (1969-1973) and “DH in Hollywood” (1980-1984) suggest that some of Hodgkin’s paintings are meant to be seen as portraits, no matter how abstracted their imagery might be?) The fact that portraiture is an important component of England’s long-held perceptions of its artistic achievement and modern painting is something I want to examine. 

In 1976, the American artist R.B. Kitaj organized an exhibition, Human Clay, at London’s Hayward Gallery. Kitaj got the title from W.H. Auden’s poem “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937), which contains this stanza:

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

According to Kitaj, his friend Hockney (the “DH” in the Hodgkin painting) liked to quote this passage. And yet, reading the show’s catalogue essay, it seems likely that Kitaj implicitly agreed with Auden’s hierarchy that the human figure was art’s greatest subject, and that the main function of landscapes and still lifes were to be a “background to a torso.” 

This is what Kitaj had to say about painting the figure: 

Don’t listen to the fools who say either that pictures of people can be of no consequence or that painting is finished. There is much to be done. It matters what men of good will want to do with their lives.

“Painting” and “pictures of people” are synonymous for Kitaj. It was also in this catalogue essay that he defined “the School of London.” This is how he described its members: 

The bottom line is that there are artistic personalities in this small island more unique and strong and I think numerous than anywhere in the world outside America’s jolting artistic vigor. 

There is something about Kitaj’s emphasis on “artistic personalities” that disturbs me. Is it wrong to think that there is something misguided about his stress on celebrity, particularly since the ones he is calling attention are portrait painters?  

One of the fascinating things about the “School of London” is how its members — except for Kitaj, the American interloper and inventor of the term — have attained a secure place in English history. 

If I am to believe the official chronicles, there has never been a rebellion against these artists nor any comment about their focus on portraiture, at least by English artists of the same generation, born between World War I and World War II, during what Auden called the “Age of Anxiety.” 

It would appear that no one in this generation was the least bit bothered by its perceived devotion to signature styles or characterizations, to resemblance, and to the figure. The best-known artists are the ones who wedded their style to “human clay.” 

America, on the other, hand has seen Pop Art, Minimalism, and Color Field painting challenge their predecessor, Abstract Expressionism, which had challenged Regionalism and Conceptual Art; the proverbial “Death of Painting” challenge all of painting; and marginalized artists challenge all of these implicitly conservative narratives focusing on the end of history, art, and painting. 

The reason I started thinking about England’s attachment to portraiture and the collective refusal of many English artists to acknowledge any criticism of this deep affection is because of two paintings that were largely overlooked at the time they were made and, to my mind, still have yet to receive their due. 

In the summer of 1978 — after Human Clay claimed figurative and portrait painting to be one of the crowning achievements of postwar English art — William Tillyer (born 1937) first used wire mesh, which he described in an email as “an off-the-shelf garden product” (December 9, 2020), in his paintings, including two that were titled, respectively, “Portrait, Head and Shoulders” and “Portrait, Head and Shoulders (Lattice)” (both 1978). The paintings were done in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he was preparing for a solo exhibition.

William Tillyer, “Portrait, Head and Shoulders” (1978), acrylic on canvas and metal mesh, 29 1/8 x 25 5/8 inches

While the titles do not single out an individual — which itself is a meaningful part of the works — Tillyer used the mesh differently in each painting: in one, it is diagonal, and in the other, orthogonal. 

Tillyer cut the mesh into two sections, which he collaged directly onto the canvas. One section is an open rectangle, whose edges either extend beyond or align with the conventionally stretched canvas, suggesting a frame in both works, while the other section is an irregular rectangle, signifying a head; the second section is placed above the center of the framed area, where the head would typically be located in most portraits. 

By collaging the wire mesh onto the canvas, Tillyer causes a number of things to happen. He calls attention to the painting’s surface while imposing an open barrier in front of it. He prevents the paint from smoothly coating the surface, so the artwork is not painterly nor does it achieve any of the dramatic effects that are generally associated with either a loaded or dry brush. He elevates the importance of the frame, which can be seen as an ironic commentary on the art of portraiture. 

Tillyer’s conceptual gesture exposes the fallacy of the assumption that the brush should be able to touch the canvas anywhere that the artist wishes, and that this freedom is an essential component to the masterpiece tradition and a sign of the artist’s genius. By undermining his ability to paint freely, he hints at England’s preoccupation with class and lineage, as well as the belief that for a portrait to be important it must be done in the masterpiece tradition. 

Is it any wonder these two paintings have been largely overlooked by the English art establishment? They can be seen as a direct critique of the cult surrounding artist’s personalities and their signature styles, which eventually become packaged for the viewer’s consumption.  

In these paintings, beginning with the format, Tillyer undermines everything we normally associate with portraiture and its emphasis on resemblance. Instead of surrounding and enhancing the portrait, the mesh becomes part of the painting, and summons associations with self-taught art and Art Brut.  

At the same time, the wire mesh evokes the grid that portrait artists often use to define the contours of the head and to aid in the proportional placement of facial features. Additionally, it suggests an imprisoning enclosure, not unlike that of the historical assumptions about portraiture from which Tillyer needed to disentangle. 

More than being the incisive works of an outlier, Tillyer’s two featureless portraits made of wide, straightforward brushstrokes sever the bond between the artist’s signature style and the sitter. By doing so, the artist comments on the hierarchical construction of English society, the gaps between the much photographed and gossiped about royalty (both real and invented), the faceless commoners, and all those existing on the rungs in between. 

By turning the head into an anonymous, abstract shape, Tillyer removes all traces of the flattery, decorative details, and painterly flourishes that are considered integral to portraiture. 

By de-emphasizing the individual, he calls into question the hallowed tradition of English portrait painting, its long lineup of notable artists and subjects, and the special bonds between them. The addition of the featureless subject is a reminder of all the nameless and forgotten people who have contributed to England’s well-being. 

I cannot help but think that Tillyer is being implicitly critical of the portraits of Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and even Howard Hodgkin, each of whom gained wide attention during the period in which Tillyear made his paintings. 

The flat insistence of Tillyer’s brushstrokes underscores his desire to clear a space for his work without resorting to a signature style or personal marks. At the same time, his rejection of what Kitaj dubbed the “School of London,” and its focus on portraiture, figuration, and personality offers a clue as to why the London art establishment has never fully embraced him. They like it when their boys and girls are “rebels” as long as they behave correctly and take the right path. 

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

2 replies on “Some Thoughts About England’s Obsession With Portraits”

  1. Many thanks, John Yau, for this latest example of your unique and indispensable art writing. As I’m completely unfamiliar with Tillyer, I can’t help wondering whether the two works you describe are typical of his practice or how they reflect his overall concerns. Perhaps that’s another story…

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I was excited to read it, not only because it touched on something I see as true about British art and perhaps take for granted, but also because I was hoping you might consider why British artists continue to be interested in a specific kind of figuration. Instead, it seemed largely to defend an American break with representation and the assumption that British painters, by continuing to worry the figure (or specifically the portrait, which I think still needs to be argued) are towing the line of some staid academic tradition that needs to be reconsidered.

    This is not to say I don’t agree that a lot of artists in the UK continue to paint the body in uninteresting, unimaginative ways. But isn’t that also the case with American abstraction (and figuration, too)? I find it more interesting to look specifically at regional differences – what exactly were Auerbach, Freud, Bowling, Hockney, Kitaj, Paula Rego, Celia Paul et al doing with the portrait/figure, anyway? To link them to England’s preoccupation with class and lineage, in the line of Gainsborough or Van Dyck, for instance, is to ignore the essential part of 20th cent British painting they were responding to, namely, Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer.

    I do like Tillyer’s paintings and was glad to be introduced to them, but just because one artist adds pieces of mesh to his canvases does not make the case that the “School of London” weren’t challenging ‘flattery, decorative details and painterly flourishes’ when painting the body or face.

    The history of figurative painting in the UK is varied and should ideally be looked at in context. For some reason, though, it HAS become a little watery and boring. But I would argue that figuration itself is not the issue at hand. There is nothing inherently classicist about representing the human body, and there are plenty of ways to challenge the UK’s history of portraiture – it just doesn’t have to be an American-style abstraction. Marginalised artists are also challenging conservative notions in painting here (as you said of artists in the US), and specifically portraiture, such as Joy Labinjo, Kudzanai Violet Hwami.

    I feel a little old-fashioned arguing the point that regional differences must be looked at now we’re in the digital media age. But it’s kind of important in this case. There may well exist a cult of personality around Bacon and Freud, but the same can be said about Pollock and Warhol, etc.

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