Victor Willing (1928–1988) is arguably best known as the painter husband of Paula Rego, whom he met at art school in the 1950s and who eventually eclipsed him. Now the Timothy Taylor gallery in London is trying to restore that balance with an exhibition in London next month that 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 School of London’s leading 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 its arresting, dimly lit files. But the admiration did not translate into sales, and in 1956 he was persuaded by his father-in-law to quit painting and run an electronics factory in Lisbon. However, business did not do well and in 1974 the family returned to London. To make matters worse, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; he was only 38.
However, he continued to paint and took a completely different path – colourful, slightly surreal compositions and expressionist heads rendered with self-taught simplicity. ACTH, the steroid medication he was prescribed for MS, also played tricks on his perception. So, as he sat in his windowless studio in Stepney, staring at blank walls for hours, he began seeing visions which he passed on as paintings, some of which will be on display in the exhibition.
“I found myself very tired, tired but not sleepy,” he told art critic Alistair Hicks in 1987. And I started to get the impression that the wall was dissolving in front of me and a huge hole appeared, about the size of my canvases, and I could apparently see through the wall into a room on the other side.”
These works attracted interest from curators and were featured in exhibitions at the Serpentine and Whitechapel art galleries in the 1980s. In his introduction to the 1986 exhibition in Whitechapel, the gallery’s director at the time, Nicholas Serota, wrote that Willing was “little known and underestimated then as now” and that in the 1970s he began to make “strange combinations of metaphysical objects…like a fire”. to produce a comet that would eventually guide us all”. Willing later described his works as existential rather than surreal, 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 up and coming 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 he made after lengthy study of the hats worn on television at Ascot on Ladies Day.
After his death, Rego’s trajectory went up, but Willing’s trajectory went down. In 1987, for example, he had donated a triptych of small red heads to the Whitechapel auction, which sold for a record £8,500. But four years later, after he died, the same painting failed to find a buyer at auction for £5,000.
A small rebound took place in 2005 when Charles Saatchi, a big fan of Rego’s who had also bought numerous copies of Willing’s, decided to release eight at Christie’s with very low estimates. The highest price was £9,600, which is still the artist’s auction record. Privately, however, a revival is underway, with prices sometimes reaching six figures, says Taylor. Interest was sparked by two museum exhibitions held in the last decade at Pallant House in Chichester and Hastings Contemporary.
Taylor met Willing in the 1980s while working at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Mayfair. He has since branched out on his own with new galleries in London and New York to show young contemporaries like Antonia Showering and Honor Titus, as well as post-war European masters like Antoni Tapies and Simon Hantai, hitting the million mark. pound mark now. Taylor doesn’t want to assign Willing to the oldies, but to the younger generation because his “defined image” fits better, he says. Of course, surrealist-inspired young artists are all the rage.
Young collectors may not yet know about Willing, but Taylor has confidently priced his work from £8,000 for drawings to £150,000 for the largest painting in his exhibition – the visionary 4.1m wide burgeoning golden apple tree Cythere.
A dedicated curator who always puts the artists first
After the death of art consultant and curator Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts (1952-2022), honors piled up. “She had a vision and gave me what all artists need – a sense of confidence,” says Koen Vanmechelen, whose Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, in which the artist crossbreed chickens from around the world to promote concepts of diversity and identity, she curated while she was director of the Lisson Gallery in 2000. As gallery owner Anthony Reynolds says, “As with the most interesting artists, the adjective that best describes what Jill did is ‘surprising.'”
Nicholas Logsdail, founder of the Lisson Gallery, where she worked for nine years as executive director with leading sculptors Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Richard Wentworth and Anish Kapoor, said: “Jill was first and foremost an artist person who cared for and she got out of trouble.”
Between 2005 and 2012 she was a partner at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, representing 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 had a high regard for artists and devoted herself entirely to her work and well-being. She has also been involved in building very important collections and has initiated many ambitious exhibition projects.”
When Jill joined Ropac, she quickly developed a close working relationship with artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. “She spent endless hours with us,” says Emilia, “her positivity was contagious and very good for the artists she worked with, as many of us often get depressed. She worked around the clock to find a good place for our works. In 2009, Jill organized a touring exhibition of our white paintings Under the Snow, including Glimpses of Reality, which successfully toured museums in Europe and Spain and virtually sold out.”
Philippe Méaille, the French collector with the largest collection of works by British conceptual artists Art & Language at the Château de Montsoreau in the Loire, says: “Jill was a contemporary art activist, convinced that the world could be saved through art.” The prominent Slovak collectors Igor Lah, 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 have been the same without her.