English painter, sculptor and printmaker. After working as a carpenter and joiner (1944–6) and serving in the Royal Air Force (1946–9), he studied in London at St Martin's School of Art (1949–52) and the Royal College of Art (1952–5), where his fellow students included Peter Blake and Richard Smith. He worked at first in a fairly conventional realist style, concentrating on contemporary subject-matter taken from his immediate surroundings and from travels to Italy and Spain (e.g. Matador, 1954; priv. col., see P. Huxley, ed., Exhibition Road: Painters at the Royal College of Art, Oxford, 1988, p. 48).
After seeing Abstract Expressionist paintings in an exhibition (1956) of American art held at the Tate Gallery, London, he worked briefly in an abstract style, for example in the essentially monochromatic colour-field painting Untitled (1957; U. Newcastle upon Tyne, Hatton Gal.). In the late 1950s, however, he began to produce reliefs in wood, making use of his carpentry skills and achieving by 1961 a highly formalized abstract language, for example in Collage 16/W (1961; Liverpool, Walker A.G.), one of a series consisting of simple geometric forms composed from fragments of wood veneer glued to the surface. He responded quickly to the emergence of Pop art in the work of Peter Phillips and other young students at the Royal College of Art, adapting his language of forms to the creation of objects reminiscent of children's toys in their construction, bold colours and schematized imagery, as in For Jake and Anna (1961; priv. col., see Quintavalle, p. 39), dedicated to his young son and daughter. Tilson continued throughout the 1960s to explore the potential both of grids as a structural device and of emblematic imagery linking, sometimes tautologically, the written word with the object quality of the constructed motif, as in Key Box (1963; see Quintavalle, p. 66). His formal and iconographic concerns were particularly well matched in wooden constructions based on mazes or ziggurats, such as Zikkurat 7 (1967; AC Eng), one of a group of brightly painted works.
Although much of Tilson's work in the 1960s retained a handmade look, by the mid-1960s he was making creative use of technology, notably in his editioned screenprints and multiples. In Transparency. The Five Senses: Taste (vacuum-formed sheet with perspex, 1470x1470x50 mm, 1969; London, Tate), for example, presented as a grossly enlarged replica of a 35 mm slide, he made reference to the glossy look of airbrushed magazine photography. His collage-based screenprints composed from recycled photographic and printed imagery, such as Che Guevara (Page 39) (1970; London, Tate), in which he made allusion to contemporary events and to radical political figures of the time, often had an urgency suggestive of news bulletins. Such references were made explicit in the late 1960s in a group of reliefs incorporating screenprinted imagery, such as Page 12. Vietnam Courier (1969; see Quintavalle, p. 120).
In 1972 Tilson moved with his family to Christian Malford, Wilts, and began deliberately to project his adoption of a simpler rural existence. Turning away from technology, which he could no longer view with the same optimism, he again favoured traditional craftsmanship in wood. He became interested in the symbolism of the four elements and in natural cycles, going so far as to scorch words into the wood surface as a way of literally harnessing fire as an element of his art (e.g. Earth Ladder, 1971; see Quintavalle, p. 180). In his paintings and prints of the 1980s he often used inscriptions and motifs drawn from pre-Classical mythology. While he continued on occasion to make screenprints, his preference was later for a variety of more traditional techniques, including etching, aquatint, woodcut and carborundum, sometimes combined in displays of impressive virtuosity.