Critical Texts on TH

No other painter today offers as potent a sense of the thrills and apprehensions that constitute living in mind and body. To this common ground Hyman adds a fertilising mixture of ancient and modern learning as normal aspects of his everyday existence. The Expressionist function of his art is powered by a classical tendency to construct with clarity and by feeling for the compositional fluencies of pre-Renaissance narrative art. He wants to know himself and his life through his art, as much as to record it. Images that at first appear impetuous jottings impress themselves on the visual memory as penetrating statements revealing to the viewer more than one man’s thoughts and feelings.

[…] Space itself refuses conventional arrangements as though to confirm that all is a quest, bending, looming, slipping away to set the focused core of the epiphanic vision in the context of a peripheral half-seen world.

Professor Norbert Lynton
Autumn 1990/Royal Academy Magazine

Hyman’s paintings take us on a kind of hectic piggy-back… Countries, cities, streets and faces swoop by. Horizons tilt, walls and floors tip up… We join bus queues in Islington, into houses, gain vantage points over sprawling townscapes. We seem to see through the artist’s eyes, except that so often his profile edges into the periphery of the scene, reminding us that we are seeing over his shoulder.

Merlin James 1991

It is an odd, haunted, ambiguous kind of painting, reminiscent of contemporary literature: self-fascinated, self-critical, and always somewhat harassed, but the relationship, the one which clearly provokes the anxiety and the exhilaration, is the relationship that Hyman is trying to establish between himself and the spectator.

Rasaad Jamie, 1983 Artscribe extract

Timothy Hyman is widely travelled and his art shows him to be unusually responsive to place – to the history and distinctive features of a region or city, and to the sensation of being in the midst of its particular atmosphere. He perceives cities as organisms, and his paintings, direct and energetic in touch and abounding in incident are generated in part by their vitality. Of all cities, however, it is London… that most inspires his art…

The Thames affords a visible route to and from the sea, and this motif, along with the prominence Hyman gives to many bridges, emphasises London’s continuous openness and accessibility, thus reinforcing this picture’s theme of restless change… London appears here like a giant spider or crab but the aerial viewpoint, often favoured by Hyman, also gives it the character of a map. An immediate inspiration for the present painting was a thirteenth century [Sienese] relief titled “Il Commune Pelato” (“The Community Skinned”) As a city-state, Siena was unusually self-aware and one strand in its art was a preoccupation with notions of how the life of community should be best organised – not for the good of a powerful few, but for that of its citizens as a whole. In Hyman’s picture London is personified by the giant figure of a woman… who sprawls across the cityscape, her legs doubling as two of its bridges. Some of the city’s many buildings form her diadem. Partially camouflaged amid a wealth of pictorial incident, the viewer then discovers seven or eight smaller figures. Disconcertingly, these prove to be engaged in stripping the main figure and even dismembering her.

Amid the demolition sites Hyman, an unremitting city walker and observer, has often had the sense in recent years of witnessing the ripping apart of a beloved being. North London, where he lives and works, offers remarkable views across the city, but bit by bit these are blocked off by new developments; though inspired by realities, the space he has created in The Stripping of London is no less in the realm of Dream.

Richard Morphet, extracts from note on The Stripping of London, 1999-2002 (purchased for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery)

Extracts from Richard Morphet, catalogue essay for The Panorama of Mid-life, 2000

Crucial in the development of each painting is the activity of drawing. Hyman does not just note what he sees, but seizes it, in swift strokes. His concern to catch experience alive is evident in the urgency of the marks. The resulting paintings manifest a similar immediacy, recreating in another medium the ‘exclamatory’ line – the drawings’ driven touch and their grasp of the reality of what was at once seen and felt. A fast drawing done on the spot is full of information. Though often ‘wrong’, it must be followed.

The paintings in this exhibition may be divided into those that depict a single scene as Hyman has observed it (for example, Spaghetti at Golders Hill) and those which, while also indebted to much drawing from observation, present a panorama that is ‘impossible’ in literal terms but has its own reality (as in Mid River).

The first kind attest the importance for Hyman of the recollection of specific moments and the second his sense, on another level, of being in the world. The two modes are united by the feeling that each picture is telling a story. In every case, the viewer is drawn into the narrative by the sensation (often heightened by the feeling of containment given by a work’s structure) of being admitted to a strange, particular world. For though the ‘single moment’ paintings show scenes that seem instantly readable in terms of activities (sharing a meal, taking a bus journey…) they, too, seem charged with an elusive significance that hinges on exactly what is going on at a personal level.


If one had to name two London painters whose work (witnessed developing as he found his own voice) has specially influenced Hyman these would be R. B. Kitaj and Howard Hodgkin. In painting and writing alike, Kitaj and Hyman both assert the self strongly and examine their personal life closely. But in part what drew Hyman to Kitaj’s enterprise was the sheer ambition of his engagement – with both past and present, in both public and private life and in so many of the arts. The allegorical mode is also crucial to both. In their different ways, Kitaj and Hodgkin use colour and paint exuberantly. The near abstraction of many Hodgkin pictures speaks to Hyman because the sensuousness it exhibits is also the vehicle for intense lived experience of relationships and places.

[…] the moment of heightened or visionary perception, through the medium of the self is vital in Hyman’s painting. He watches himself, almost as if watching an actor. Yet at the same time we watch him watching. Indeed, important though his image is in almost every work, we often have to search it out, only to discover him, observant, at the picture’s very edge. Hyman acknowledges the ambiguity that exists between his roles, as a character in his art, as witness and as confessor. There is yet a third role, for his self-image, often inserted into the work last, is ‘a way of putting the spectator into the situation’.

Hyman is not only present in his own art; his oeuvre reads like an account of one person’s journey through life. It is diary and record, but in Thames, The Pilgrim meets Infirmity and Old Age 1997/2000 he avows explicitly the notion of pilgrimage. Many works are to do with travel or with movement. Some are set in a bus, boat or plane in motion; or, while the location is fixed, the picture is likely to include a strongly-identified road or river. Alternatively, without any means of transport, the viewpoint, magically, is that of someone flying high above the city. Even where none of these factors obtains, any Hyman composition induces imagined movement through the scene in an animated way. In Myddelton Square, Springboard of London, 1990/91 Hyman himself shoots skyward in a posture of prayer. Amid a flurry of brushstrokes, the city literally turns around him. This north London square is his home. The painting is emblematic of the way that while his art is rooted in places and in specifics, a painting’s setting or its treatment stresses flux.

Hyman’s is an art that seeks to include everything. His pictures of whatever subject, even a small room, are crammed to the very edges, insistent that we experience the scene in its entirety. For all his intense interest in the city’s particularity, it is possible to see his panoramas of London also as pictures of the world, that is to say of humanity itself, in all its astonishing diversity, and of what it has created. So strong is this determination of Hyman the painter at once to possess this human complexity, and in possessing to affirm i, that to depict a city, especially his own, would for him be to paint a self portrait, even if he did not introduce his own image into the picture. Thus as much as being about London (or any place he paints), the subject of his work can be seen as constructing the self.

As markers, London landmarks strengthen the analogy between a painting and a map. Instinctively, he imagines the city from above. Thus laid out, it is ‘free of entrapment or exhaustion’, as he puts it. But this way he can also own it and hold it. The wider the vista in a Hyman landscape the greater his propensity to the pictorial structure of an arc. To him, a rounded terrain has a comforting quality, but it also implies a cosmic sense of the world, more than just a flat stage that we drop off.

Establishing the space in a picture is crucial to his expression. What happens at the outer edges is anything but incidental. Vitality at the margins also reflects his intense engagement with the expansive view given by the cinema screen. Crucially, however, the space in his pictures is generated by the excitement of the subject, with its imperatives at once to concentrate on each detail and yet to bring everything into play. The paintings abound in pictorial ‘inserts’, and sometimes whole portions of a view are presented on their sides, or upside down. The central perspective that dominated art for centuries has been abandoned in favour of earlier conceptions, but only because these (for example, Sienese painting 1275-1475) are compelling for Hyman in the here and now. Driven to put incompatible things together so that they harmonise, he achieves a kind of unexpected wit in the composition. These paintings curiously combine an openness that seems to border on the ingenuous, with a sophisticated awareness of life’s complexity. However distant they may now appear from any current ‘mainstream’, their vivid and distinctive witness makes them of lasting interest.

Richard Morphet

Timothy Hyman in conversation with Gabriel Josipovici, 2002

Published as introduction to ‘Mid-River: Paintings and Drawings of a Decade’, Austin/Desmond Fine Art

I’ve known Tim for close on thirty years. His art and our conversations over those years have been an inspiration and a stimulus for my own thoughts and work, though we do not always see eye to eye. We met twice in the autumn of 2002 and recorded my attempt to get Tim to talk about his own art, and to see what threads, if any, connected his varied and wide-ranging interests. What follows is a heavily edited transcript of those recordings, though I have tried to retain the natural flow of the conversation.

GJ: Can we start with when I first met you, in the mid-seventies? You were about to curate a show entitled Narrative Paintings: Art of Two Generations at the ICA*. What was the impulse behind that?

TH: Along with so many painters of my generation, l’d left art school with a sort of grudge that a series of tidal waves – first American painting, then what one might call neo-Duchampianism – had engulfed the art world. The whole basis of representation and story-telling seemed to have been just wiped off the map. It was very difficult to come to terms with. So in order to function at all as a painter, I needed to map out a new route through the recent past, one that made more sense to me than the official version. Narrative Paintings was an attempt to do that.

GJ: How conscious were you already at the Slade that you were going in a direction that was different from the ‘official’ one?

TH: In 1966, surrounded by students painting cool hard-edged stripes, I’d embarked on a large picture of an imaginary party, to which all the people in my life had come: friends and fellow students, my mother in the foreground, even Professor Coldstream himself. A very adolescent theme. But I completely lost my way: it imploded before my eyes over a long period, becoming first a sort of de Kooning, then a virtually unreadable representation, before lurching back into focus as a kind of Munch-Nolde. So by my final year I’d made a commitment to what I would now call ‘gory expressionism’, because that seemed truer to what I was feeling than any other option. I knew it was a bad move, and I knew I was going to make that move. When The Party was wheeled out at the Slade Diploma in 1967, Lawrence Gowing apparently asked: “Is he a bit simple?”

GJ: But isn’t ‘narrative’ rather different from ‘gory expressionism’?

TH: None of the paintings in the show were narrative in the direct way of a Sienese predella. The catalogue’s front cover reproduced R.B. Kitaj’s If not, Not, and on the back was Ken Kiff’s Talking with a Psychoanalyst. Together they seemed to stake out the territory, which had to do with building a relationship between figures, with making a ‘modern painting’ which was human-centred. And those two images signposted a tension I still feel in my own work, between public and intimate, between the altarpiece and some more lyrical, small-scale aspiration, which I don’t think I’ll ever quite resolve.

GJ: I’m interested in your casual use of terms like predella and altarpiece. One of the things we share is a love of medieval art and culture, and a sense that it’s close to our own concerns as artists, though this has nothing to do with religion in your case or mine.

TH: I suppose we both feel that if we had to sacrifice either the nineteenth or the fourteenth century, the nineteenth would have to go. Why do we feel so much closer to the world of the fourteenth century?

GJ: It’s so difficult to pin down. Partly it has to do with the sense of calmness and confidence in medieval art. There are no big gestures. The art of the time isn’t looking at itself, it’s not dramatising. There’s something fresh, innocent about it. Look at those Rogier van der Weyden flowers or the flowers in the Dame à la Licorne tapestries; look at the verse of the simplest medieval lyric or at highly complex works like Dante’s Commedia and the English Pearl. It’s always there, that innocence and joy, no matter how sophisticated the artist. Proust and Rilke and Eliot and Pound felt that instinctively, it spoke to them, as the art of their immediate predecessors did not. Something got lost in the Renaissance, and I wrote The World and the Book (at roughly the time you were attending the Slade) to try and understand what that was, and how it was kept alive, in diverse ways, by a very few post-Renaissance artists.

TH: One of the aspects of medieval art I’ve found most inspiring is the way each work is a distinct project: the altarpiece, the predella, the fresco cycle, the illuminated book. That seems to me very different from the contemporary notion of the one-man show, the series, the milking of a single motif or theme. The way the medieval artist embarks on a narrative and fills a room with it, I love that. But I just can’t emulate it.

GJ: Of course you can’t. Medieval narratives are given. The life of Christ; Saints’ lives. Because the Middle Ages aren’t concerned with the inner life, they can concentrate on the whole shape of a life from birth to death. What is important is what a man does, not what he thinks or feels himself to be. It’s hard for us, without the whole world-picture of a medieval or Homeric, or biblical man, to see life in this way. The Renaissance and Romanticism opened up subjectivity for us, but at what a cost! We lost the sense of life as a shape and at best can only see it as a project.

TH: I’d love to paint a life of Gandhi. But I can’t do it with conviction. So all I’m falling back on are fragments. I think Goya in the Black Paintings felt this. He was filling a room, but out of despair, not joy.

GJ: All the post-Renaissance artists who interest me are like that: they sense what got lost as well as what was opened up. Some desperately, like Goya or Hölderlin or Baudelaire; others with a kind of wild humour, like Rabelais and Sterne. You’d like to do a Gandhi sequence, but it probably can’t be done. Not in the way you’d like. The trouble with present-day artists who are drawn to earlier cultures, like Arvo Pärt and John Taverner, is that they think you can simply tap into traditional cultures and replay them today. More profound artists, like Stravinsky and Picasso, realise you have to find a modern way of doing it, whatever that might mean. But I suspect you don’t feel this in quite the way I do. You love the sprawling novels of John Cowper Powys and Italian cinema, don’t you?

TH: When I was starting out it was the high point of Italian cinema. Fellini, the Fellini of 8½ in particular, thinks of himself as painting a fresco. Pasolini cast himself as Giotto. Visconti, when he widens the screen, is thinking of certain kinds of fresco-images. It’s present in all of them. Theirs is the most visual cinema form and I don’t think it’s been surpassed. For me these people are more nourishing exemplars, more ambitious, more liberating than their contemporary equivalents in literature and music and painting.

GJ: Really? I’m amazed. I feel there are wonderful moments in all three, but the plots are often banal, the dialogue uninspired, the whole thing doesn’t seem to be a major art at all. A fine example of popular art, yes, but today, unlike the Middle Ages, popular art and great art tend not to be the same thing.

TH: You feel they don’t come to terms with Modernism?

GJ: That’s too grand a statement. I certainly don’t think L’Année dernière à Marienbad is the future of film. Film as we now have it is a realistic medium, you can’t get round that. I suppose I feel that the discovery of how to marry sound and image in film destroyed a wonderful art form.

TH: The greatest of those Italian films – say, Rocco and his Brothers, or The Leopard – are not exactly ‘realist’: they retain some of the dreamlike ‘music’ of the silent film, while giving us access to an epic narrative, a mythic imagery, absent in all our other contemporary art forms.


GJ: You’ve just finished a book on Sienese painting, with Lorenzetti’s great panorama of The Well-Governed City at its centre. How far do you feel that you’re essentially a city-dweller, and that your art has to do with cities, the space of cities and how it feels to dwell in them?

TH: It wasn’t till I left London that I started painting London. I found myself spending eleven years in a Sussex village as a kind of van Gogh-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden, and every week l’d go up to raid London. So it was an ideated city that took hold, a ‘mythologisation’ of the city.

GJ: Was it the city as a public space that drew you? Or the idea of the ‘flâneur’, the invisible wanderer in an alien urban environment?

TH: Living in the city feeds one’s concern for the fragility of life. You feel one minute that the city can somehow be grasped – be healed or mended or made whole, and then the epiphany fades, and you’re back with fragmentation and horror. Mythologising the city is of course a way of protecting oneself against the desolation of the real. I’d like it if my painting language could both celebrate the epiphany and convey that any utopian vision of the city is illusory. Perhaps my own presence in these pictures as a kind of quixotic fool does help signal that.

GJ: Is that why you so often appear in your paintings?

TH: Well, at another level it has to do also with the way I need to wrap the curvature of space around a centre – which is usually myself, my own subjectivity.

GJ: But what fascinates me about this tendency of yours to put yourself in your own paintings is that it seems to be a way of saying: this is a vision, but it’s only my vision. Far from being a sign of arrogance or self-centredness, it seems to me to be a sign of humility. Your painting becomes not an image of the world, or what you would like the viewer to see as an image of the world, but rather an image of you looking at the world. And that’s much more honest. You paint yourself painting your family, and we are made to think not just about your family but about the tensions that exist within families and what depicting a family might mean to them and to you. And about the wellsprings of this particular painting.

TH: I like the idea of each painting as a search for one’s own identity.

GJ: That painting, called Painting the Family, seems to have been on the go for almost as long as l’ve known you. Why has it been so difficult to resolve?

TH: I kept seeing other areas in which it might have come into focus. An Israeli friend, a psychoanalyst, came to see me last week and said he thought the whole composition revolved round my mother being out of focus. That the whole point was not being able to get her into focus.

GJ: It’s as much about you as about them, these large people rising up and confronting the painter, who cowers behind his canvas.

TH: Certainly that was my role as an adolescent: making the activity of painting my refuge against the family, against society.

GJ: So many members of your family have died since you began it.

TH: Three, yes. Three out of six. So it’s a very strange process. It’s rather like calling up the dead. In other words they’re not just satire but phantasmal presences.

GJ: That’s what I feel about your best work. It can look like satire at first, but it’s not that. It’s utopian, but it’s not just that either. It seems to me that when everything works, theres a wonderful sense of the complexity and the shifting nature of life – of one’s hold on one’s own life and the lives of others and of the world about one. When it doesn’t, it’s because it disintegrates under the tension of that conflict. It would be easier for you if you were just a satirist or just a portrait painter.

TH: Whether I’m trying to draw Peter de Francia’s Easter Island profile, or the London skyline, or the configuration of a bus window, I still have to translate each into colour and surface. And, on a formal level, I see that I want, consistently to use a bouquet of many different local colours. My mother always sat in a green armchair; my twin brother I associate with blue. Those were givens, and I couldn’t sacrifice or restrict them for the sake of the whole. And then there has to be a way of getting the forms to accept the colours and vice-versa. That’s a lot of what one’s really struggling with.

GJ: The other day in your studio we were looking at The Stripping of London and you agreed with me there were problematic areas in it. Two small sketches stood beside it, and seemed more unified. And yet you insisted the image needed to be at the six-foot scale.

TH: Ever since my early visits to Italy l’ve been programmed for the fresco or altarpiece scale. You could call it my ‘life illusion’. My smaller pictures are essentially vignettes, where one rushes into deep space. But the larger, panoramic ones are more constructed, and the space is more evidently an artifice. In the painting about being on a bus, for instance, I’m given an epiphany and I draw from that moment, and the space comes with it.

GJ: That’s a very important part of your work, it seems to me, this catching of a moment that’s speeding by. You’re doing something in those pictures that interests me a great deal. The bulk of the art we know, whether visual or literary, seems to imply that one is always face to face with the world and with all the time to take it in; whereas our experience of life comes at us in a rush, from all sides. There’s always a lot of noise mixed in with the music. When we make art we tend to filter out that noise, that quality of the half-heard, the barely grasped, the fleeting. So I warm to your bus and car paintings, and the general sense in your work of momentary perception, soon gone.

TH: In the bus pictures the frame compresses the composition. But in the larger pictures, even where there’s one single dominant element, as in The Gandhian Ark, everything threatens to leech out of the constructed space. I don’t have the same sense of being in control – though I’m never fully in control anyway.

GJ: I’ve talked to a number of young painters, English and German, who are more interested in your work than in many of your contemporaries, precisely because they like that quality of struggle, of unresolved problems. Too many artists in the generation before theirs, they feel, have found an idiom or subject matter and simply go on repeating, elegantly. They’re tired of that.

TH: That’s music to my ears, of course. The impact of Bonnard was initially that here was something both totally present and very tentative. It’s something I feel too about the difference between Siena and Florence. Sienese painting seems to have that quality of being less willed, less clear about precisely what its aims and objectives are. That appeals to me. Vulnerability seems to be a characteristic of the art I love.

GJ: That’s what I love in Bonnard too, that mixture of the classical and the fugitive. Yet I feel there’s a part of you, the part that loves Blake and Spencer, that responds to something very different. I find a hectoring tone in their work, a kind of madness, brooking no dissent.

TH: Yes, I am drawn to it. Yet I myself can’t quite make it! Or I’ve come to think that the big canvases may be precisely about that failure. So there’s a kind of half-ridiculous pathos in those pictures 

GJ: That’s what saves them in my eyes. Like the intrusion of the first person we were talking about earlier.

TH: 1 often think Judith [Judith Ravenscroft, TH’s wife] takes care of the classical in my imagery, and my bespectacled self-image supplies the grotesque.

GJ: Is it the grotesque that appeals to you in Gillray?

TH: He’s a demented artist. I’m interested in the way he has no ‘language’. No language for how to make a person, for instance. All his contemporaries know ‘how to make’ a figure. But with Gillray, he’s squiggling his way through life. He’s desperately trying to conjure human life out of calligraphy.

GJ: And the same thing appeals to you in the carnivalesque?

TH: Yes. A certain kind of out-of-control wildness. I rejected lots of images for that show [Carnivalesque, 2000] because they seemed too lucid to be truly carnivalesque.

GJ: So it’s the improvisatory feel that really appeals to you?

TH: I haven’t really thought about it like that; but it’s true. My small pictures do have an improvisatory feel to them.

GJ: The large ones too, you know.

TH: And yet what I aim for is not the squiggle but the cathedral. But in my fifties, I begin to doubt whether I’ll ever get there.

GJ: Thank goodness you feel that way. I would hate you to feel otherwise. It’s precisely that mingled sense of quest and doubt I love in your work.

Gabriel Josipovici is a novelist and playwright. He was born in Nice in 1940 and lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He joined the faculty of the newly formed University of Sussex, from which he recently retired as Professor of English in the School of European Studies. He has published over a dozen novels and volumes of short stories, several critical books, and his plays have been performed on stage and radio.

Back to top