Tristram Hillier (1905-1983)


Tristram Hillier was 13 years Silvia’s junior. He was born in Peking but, when only six months old, sailed to England with his mother, siblings and a Japanese nurse. His childhood was not easy and his mother died when he was 12. This trauma coincided with being sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in England. Subsequently, he studied art in London and Paris. Hillier was later elected to the Royal Academy, in 1957. He was married twice and had 2 children from each marriage.

In the manner of the Old Masters, Hillier would usually prepare ‘exquisite’ drawings prior to painting his subject on to canvas. By the Thirties, he was invited to join the (short-lived) Unit One – a modern movement in English painting, sculpture & architecture, founded by Paul Nash.

In the late Forties, shortly before Silvia went to spend the winter in Spain, she visited the Tate Gallery and was drawn ‘like a magnet’ to a still-life, entitled Harness* by Hillier. A few weeks later, whilst lodging at Santa Clara in Torremolinos, Hillier came to stay at the same hotel – it was a popular haunt for artists. Silvia introduced herself and, even though she had only come across a couple of his paintings, declared that she was ‘one of his fans’. They struck up conversation and found they had both studied under Professor Tonks at the Slade School.

In Journey to Yesterday, Silvia describes Hillier as having the cold austere air of an Englishman but then his smile ‘seems to splinter the ice that encrusts him’. He would go off to desolate villages and lodge in ‘wretched fondas’ where he painted scenes of post-atomic bomb destruction but, instinctively, did so with ‘religious feeling’.** This latter sentiment reflects the ‘quality of stillness’ prevalent in many paintings between the two world wars.


In the family collection, there are copies of ten letters* which Tristram wrote to Silvia. They are all post-WW2 and most are sent from Yew Tree Cottage, where Tristram lived after the war at East Pennard, near Shepton Mallet. Three are handwritten, the rest are typed. Additionally, there is an undated Christmas Card (of statues at Chartres Cathedral) in which, besides sending ‘Love and Good Wishes for Christmas’, Tristram writes ‘Where are you?’.

* The originals have not yet been traced.

1     The first letter, dated 3rd December 1949, is transcribed in full as it provides evidence of Silvia being received into the Roman Catholic church. It also reveals something of Hillier’s Catholic bias and an eccentric purchase…

My Dear Silvia,

This is wonderful news and I wish I could be in London for your reception. I shall pray for you, however, as I hope you will for me – Indeed, it would be more appropriate to pray for me than to thank me for something that was none of my doing. The almighty may have used me as an inadequate mouthpiece when I had had enough wine to drink, but the whole thing was achieved by the air of Torremolinos and the Spirit of the Holy Ghost. Gloria in Excelsis Deo –

It was nice to see you in London and I enjoyed our evening with the Rothensteins. But afterwards I was stricken with remorse for not having stayed to wash up.
I am working on the Railway Train Tryptych which is giving me Hell and I am contemplating an enormous crucifixion but I do not suppose it will even materialise.
I have been having a correspondence with the Director of the Ashley Gallery and I wish you would go & see it and tell me what it, and she, are like. Is it a Catholic set up or some monstrous Anglican heresy?

When you feel you can face staying with people come down…
Yours ever
PS When is your article on me appearing?
I have bought a pig and a dog.

The other letters are written between 1957 and 1967 (just 3 years before Silvia died). They cover familiar letter-writing subjects such as the weather, travel, increased rents and illness, not forgetting Exhibitions,  invitations to Private Views and repeated invitations to stay at Yew Tree Cottage. Also some strong views…

2     20th May 1957, from Bavaria
How nice of you to have written to congratulate me on my election to the R.A. I was not sure at first whether it should not be an occasion of commiseration, but all my friends seem very pleased, so I suppose it’s all right!
It was especially nice of you to write as I owe you a letter and thought you would be furious with me for not answering your card from the Canary Islands months ago. But my life has been so disturbed since then that I really do deserve to be forgiven, and I will tell you all about everything when I see you next – which I hope will (not) be before too long…..

3      18th June 1961
Hillier has been told about the Guild of Catholic Artists (founded 1929) and wonders what it involves but mentions being ‘rather frightened of guilds’.

4     3rd June 1962
This letter refers to his painting of Alcaniz (Spain) in the Tate. Whereas he didn’t care for it, Silvia and others admired it, for which reason he supposes that it ‘has some hidden merit which has escaped me’. His tone is one of general discouragement – both with painting and with the way of the young. However, he is heartened to learn of Silvia’s missionary work… Evidently, Hillier always thought that she had a touch of St Teresa – of Avila – ‘not the Little Plant’.

         (Was Silvia really involved in missionary work or was it more like voluntary work with a charity?). 

5     1st July 1963
Far from sitting on a Portuguese beach, I am gloomily painting in my studio while the rain pours down each day. I have been wondering where one can still go? The whole of the Spanish coast seems to have been ruined – and Portugal is not much better. Last year I went to the south of Italy which I thought was perfect Hell – nothing but motor horns and radios.

6     20th November 1963
Has been thinking of Silvia lately and wondering how she is.

7     29th March 1966
His next Exhibition will be in October 1967. He is planning a visit to Galicia, as Southern Spain is too full of tourists. Reflects back to the Santa Clara days which seem ‘like the glimpse of a lost Paradise’.

8     6th October 1967
Confesses to being the ‘worst of correspondents and grows worse year by year’.
Reluctantly preparing for an exhibition at Tooth’s next March.
Upset by the mess into which the Church is falling and proclaims that ‘this Pope is such an ass’…

9     16th Feb, 1968
Hopes that Silvia will attend the Private View of an exhibition (Tooth’s, 26th March) as it is for me always an ordeal made bearable only by the presence of my friends.

10    18th October, year not stated, nor the address
What nonsense you do talk. Of course, you can’t be cremated – or incinerated. It is strictly forbidden by the Church. I am really rather longing for death now, aren’t you? The young still seem to think it is a wonderful world, God bless them. But they have never known “La douceur de Vivre”.