From 2nd May to 5th June 2018, the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh is showing a retrospective of the work of Bill Gillon. This is a rare opportunity to see a body of work of spectacular quality and power, much of which has never been seen before.
As a teenager, Bill was encouraged by his art teacher Ricky Demarco, to go to art college, and whilst there he gravitated towards figurative painting, although he was also drawn to sculpture. The influences of both these disciplines can be seen in his paintings.
Bill’s talent was early recognised in the art world, and by 1983 he was President of the Society of Scottish Artists, which suited him better than the Royal Scottish Academy, a body he saw as being far too allied to the ‘establishment’.
Marilyn Jeffcoat who was treasurer of the Society of Scottish Artists during Bill’s Presidency recalls:
“Bill Gillon was a rebel and he looked the part. When I first met him, he was the image of the 1960’s icon James Dean, with his quiff, black leather jacket and jeans, and I am not surprised to find out that, in his final year, he was suspended from art college. I am also not surprised that he was at the same time awarded the painting prize, presumably in absentia!
His paintings were remarkable then, and they remain so. They are so striking they look larger than life, although in reality they are just about life-size. His characters are real people but usually caught up in a surreal setting with, for example, a monkey or a tiger. His technique is that of the Old Masters, classical and with the precision of a high definition photograph, but the subject matter is contemporary and often dark.” Despite the critical acclaim at an early stage of his career, Bill himself was never satisfied and spent the rest of his working life perfecting his technique, not only on painting itself but in preparing the canvases and making the frames. Some frames are works of art in their own right. Take ‘Still looking’ as an example: the girl’s hand and fronds from her hair escape from the confines of the defined space and you no longer know what is picture and what is frame. His ultra-realism is even more evident in the life-size door he painted in the 1970’. It is on canvas but the top and bottom have been shaped to look as if the door could be opened, and it is almost impossible to resist trying.
His ‘day job’ was teaching and for many years he taught at Telford College, Edinburgh, where he developed a course that placed drawing and painting at the heart of learning. He believed that teachers should be practising artists and that students should be able to see the teachers practice. He would go home and spend every minute painting and framing his own pictures. However he spent no time at all marketing his work and would often refuse to sell. He hated talking about his work and would never offer any explanation for why, for instance a monkey appeared in so many of his paintings. Bill’s uncompromising attitude towards showing and selling his work, led to controversy and a reputation for being difficult. This was mirrored in the work place, he was a respected teacher but with very set views about the role of management. Bill worked to his own agenda and refused to let commercial (and sometimes practical) considerations influence the form or content of his work. He put a lot of time and energy into ensuring that he knew the craft of making paintings, it was important to him that his work would age as well as any of the old masters, and even tried making his own pigments.
As an artist he was generally loath to admit to being influenced by any other artist but he did a various times talk about admiring the work of people like Bernard Hesig, Holbein and Francis Bacon. Bill always was inspired by his models and has left a huge archive of photos and sketches of the people who inspired him. Towards the end of his creative life Bill became far more concerned with in his words ‘painting beautiful things’ and his work reflected this with a new-found confidence and sense of contentment. Some of his best work s dated from 2001 and his very last work completed work was the girl on the tiger which he painted in 2009.
He was a prolific painter, but he didn’t just dash off his paintings: the huge body of work he accumulated was the result of sheer hard slog. For 35 years, he lived, on his own, in a large six-bedroom tenement flat and by the end of that time there was hardly enough room for him to live or eat properly. Indeed, by 2011, he was sleeping on the floor surrounded by his work. He had become a hoarder, and a recluse. It is impossible now to tell how far his developing illness contributed to his obsessive drive, but the crisis came during a visit to Amsterdam when he was arrested for obstructing a police car. The Dutch police were very kind to him and sent him home without formally arresting him. However something had happened, perhaps a stroke, and that part of his brain which controlled his hand brain co-ordination was catastrophically destroyed and he could no longer draw or paint.
His son remembered how one of the standard tests of brain function was to draw a 3D cube, and Bill, whose command of perspective and drawing technique can be seen in every painting, failed the test. It was after that that his condition deteriorated to the extent that he had to go into a nursing home. His dementia became more and more severe, and today (May 2018) he is unable to communicate at all. Even before he became so very ill, the nature of his illness was such that he remembered little of his past life, and didn’t even recognise his own work, but when asked about himself he was very clear that he was an artist. No-one who sees his work would disagree with that.