Dark and mysterious

Ages ago, when I last wrote about the Shell educational posters, I mentioned the wonderful designs of Tristram Hillier as being perhaps my favourites of the whole bunch.  And now a few of them have come up on eBay.

Hillier Skulls poster on eBay

Tristram Hillier Shells Educational poster shell

In total, the seller has five of Hillier’s wondeful designs  for Nature Studies on offer, advertised as “will look superb in your country kitchen or seaside holiday cottage”.  Or possibly for your long dark night of the soul.

Because these posters are strange and mysterious, disconcerting rather than decoration.  Here’s his design for moths from the same series.

Tristram Hillier Moths Shell educational poster

Even without having the text to tell you that one of the caterpillers is that of the death’s head moth, the picture is still ominous enough.

It’s hardly surprising, though.  Hillier started out as a surrealist painter, and a member of Unit One along with Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Edward Wadsworth.  Like Nash in particular, he created a very British take on surrealism.

Tristram Hillier, Pylons, 1933, National Gallery of Scotland
Tristram Hillier, Pylons, 1933

But his peculiar genius was to take reality and imbue it with the strangeness and clarity of his early paintings.  It’s a very disconcerting mixture.  Here’s a still life from 1950.

Tristram Hillier The Green Bottle 1950 Southampton Art Galler

And it’s precisely this pecularity which he brings to his Shell designs.  Mind you, whoever commissioned him knew what they were doing when they gave him ‘Fossils, Insects and Reptiles’ as his subject.  Here’s Minerals (June) and Snails (December).

Tristram Hillier shell educational poster minerals june

Tristram Hillier Shell Educational Poster snails december

To make the ordinary extraordinary and strange is a rare gift; for me these paintings are so much more than just poster designs.

Clearly I’m not the only one to think so either.  This is Fossils (February).

Hillier Fossils February shell educational poster

which, in a way, belongs to every single one of us (if you’re British, that is) because it’s the property of the Government Art Collection.  And thanks to the quirkiness of the internet, I can even tell you that they paid £14,100 for it.  (The painting was sold as part of quite a big sale of Shell Artwork in 2002, and Sotheby’s still have the catalogue online.  I’ll come back to that one of these days as it’s quite an interesting insight into these posters and Shell’s thinking, which was quite outside the poster mainstream.)

If you like these as well, you don’t have to buy them on eBay.  The next Onslows Sale (and yes, I will take a look at the catalogue in the next few days) has Minerals for sale (lot 137).

Tristram Hillier shell educational poster minerals onslows

The estimate is £60-100, and if that feels like a lot, then you can always buy the book.  Shell Nature Studies: Fossils, Insects and Reptiles, starts at just £5 on Abebooks.  Unrefusable.

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