Victor Willing (1928–1988) is probably best known as the painter of Paula Rego, whom he met at art school in the 1950s, and who eventually overshadowed him. Now the Timothy Taylor gallery in London is trying to redress that balance with an exhibition in London next month, which will be Willing’s first sales exhibition in over 20 years.
A star student of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Art, and a close friend of the leading School of London painters Francis Bacon and Michael Andrews, Willing was much admired by the eminent critic David Sylvester, who described him as “a spokesman for his generation ” with his arresting, dimly lit nudes. But admiration did not translate into sales, and in 1956 he was persuaded by his father-in-law to stop painting and run an electronics factory in Lisbon. However, the business did not go well, and in 1974 the family returned to London To make matters worse, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he was only 38.
Nevertheless, he continued to paint, embarking on a completely different path – colorful, slightly surreal compositions and expressionist heads rendered with self-taught simplicity. ACTH, the steroid drug he was prescribed for MS, also played tricks on his perception. So, sitting in his windowless studio in Stepney, staring at blank walls for hours, he began to see visions which he conveyed as paintings, several of which will feature in the exhibition.
“I found that I was very tired, tired but not sleepy,” he told the art critic Alistair Hicks in 1987. “I sat down in a good chair and looked at the wall in front of me as I rested. And I began to have the impression that the wall in front of me dissolved and a huge hole, about the size of my canvases, appeared and I could see through the wall apparently to a room on the other side.”
These works attracted the interest of curators and were shown in the 1980s in exhibitions at the Serpentine and Whitechapel art galleries. In his introduction to the 1986 Whitechapel show, the gallery’s then director, Nicholas Serota, wrote how Willing was “then as now, little known and underappreciated”, and how in the 1970s he began to produce “strange conjunctions of metaphysical objects .. . like a burning fire”. the comet that would eventually lead us all”. Willing later described his works as existential, rather than surrealist, although the two adjectives are probably equally applicable.
Willing’s last exhibition, a year before his death, was at Karsten Schubert in London’s Soho, a gallery associated with the emerging Young British Artists. These late paintings were made under difficult circumstances, but they worked. Taylor’s exhibition will focus on these “fiery comets” of the 1970s and 80s, culminating in a triptych of heads which he created after an extended period studying the hats worn on Ladies Day at Ascot on TV.
After his death, Rego’s career went up, but Willing’s went down. In 1987, for example, he had given a triptych of small red heads to the Whitechapel auction which sold as estimated for a record £8,500. But four years later, after he died, the same painting failed to find a buyer at an auction for £5,000.
A small boost took place in 2005 when Charles Saatchi, a big fan of Rego’s who had also bought a number of examples from Willing, decided to let eight go to Christie’s with very low estimates. The highest price was £9,600, which remains the artist’s auction record. Privately, however, a revival has been underway with prices reaching six figures in some cases, says Taylor. Interest has been stimulated by two museum-style exhibitions held at Pallant House in Chichester and Hastings Contemporary, in the past decade.
Taylor met Willing in the 1980s when he was working at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Mayfair. Since then he has branched out on his own with new galleries in London and New York to show young contemporaries such as Antonia Showering and Honor Titus, and post-war European masters such as Antoni Tapies and Simon Hantai, who are hitting the million-pound mark now. Taylor does not want to group Willing with the old, but with the younger generation because his “defined image” fits better, he says. Sure, surrealist-inspired young artists are all the rage.
Young collectors may not know anything about Willing yet, but Taylor has confidently priced his work from £8,000 for drawings to £150,000 for the largest painting in his exhibition – the visionary, 13ft wide, budding golden apple tree, Cythere.
A dedicated curator who always puts artists first
Tributes have poured in following the death of art adviser and curator Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts (1952–2022). “She had vision, and gave me what all artists need – a sense of self-confidence,” says Koen Vanmechelen, whose Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, in which the artist crosses chickens from around the world to promote concepts of diversity and identity, she curated as director at the Lisson Gallery in 2000. As gallerist Anthony Reynolds says, “Like most interesting artists, the adjective that best describes what Jill did is ‘surprising’.”
Nicholas Logsdail, founder of Lisson Gallery where she worked as senior director for nine years with leading sculptors Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Richard Wentworth and Anish Kapoor, said: “Jill was first and foremost an artist’s person, caring about them, getting them out of trouble.”
Between 2005 and 2012 she was a partner in the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery which represented artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. Ropac described her as “a charismatic and unique figure in the international art world, with a very special insight into contemporary art. She held artists in extremely high regard and was completely devoted to their work and well-being. She was also involved in building very important collections and initiated many ambitious exhibition projects.
When Jill joined the Ropac gallery, she quickly established a close collaboration with the artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. “She spent endless hours with us,” says Emilia, “her positivity was infectious and very good for artists she worked with, as many of us often get depressed. She worked 24/7 to find a good place for our works. I In 2009, Jill organized a traveling show of our white paintings, Under the Snow, beneath which were glimpses of reality, which successfully toured museums in Europe and Spain and almost sold out.”
Philippe Méaille, the French collector with the largest collection of works by British conceptual artists Art & Language, at Château de Montsoreau on the river Loire says: “Jill was a contemporary art activist, convinced that the world can be saved through art.” The important Slovak collector Igor Lah, the founder of the soon-to-open Lah Contemporary Art Museum in Slovenia, gave a speech at Jill’s funeral on Friday, saying his collection would not be the same without her.