Wednesday, 26 January 2011

RIP: Bob Tilling

'A great deal of my work is based on the landscape and still life which is composed by a process of imaginative reconstruction in which both observation and memory play important parts.' - Robert Tilling

Death don't have no mercy in this land
Death don't have no mercy in this land
He'll come to your house and he won't stay long
You'll look in the bed and somebody will be gone
Death don't have no mercy in this land
(Reverend Gary Davis)

I remember the last time I saw Bob Tilling. It was at the Art Centre, and he was introducing one of the acts he had arranged to come over to Jersey. It may have been folk musician Vin Garbut, or the African band Kasai Masai. I remember that in his introduction, he said that it had been suggested to him that he look to acts that the people of Jersey would like, but he said he didn't work like that; he didn't look for what might be considered populist, but looked for acts he liked, and hoped that other people would like those too, and agree with his judgment. Going by the pretty full theatre at the Art Centre that night, he was right to do so.

He has just died, and the BBC had this notice on their website:

Tributes have been paid to well-known Jersey-based artist Robert Tilling, who has died after a long battle with cancer. Mr Tilling, 67, was the only Royal Institute artist in Jersey. He came to the island in 1968 as the new head of art at Victoria College. Mr Tilling was asked to design the Queen's menu when she visited the island. in 2001 and championed the local artistic community. His life was not all about art, he was a keen musician and family man. (1)

I remember him, too, at Victoria College. He had only recently started at Victoria College when I came to the school, and was both head of art, and head of my form. Back then, of course, he didn't have the beard that would become his later trademark. He was always keen to nurture the interest of all the pupils in art, and not just those who were particularly proficient, he didn't play favourites. He had the idea of working on a project, which curiously was something to do with death-watch beetles, in tandem with the music teacher. Perhaps the idea was that the pictures could imaginatively represent the beetle, or its effects, while the music could supply a tonal portrait of the beetle's distinctive noise. My own artistic efforts, were alas, of little merit, for while I could draw cartoons with sharp outlines quite proficiently, the softer edges of the natural world never quite turned out right. I seem to remember my "death watch beetle" looking not unlike one of the numskulls - the little creatures inside Ed's head - from "The Beano"

Victoria College was, I think, very fortunate to have a practicing artist, someone who produced work good enough to sell, and was not just an academic, but someone who was recognised and whose work was sought outside the narrow confines of a school. Incidentally, at College, all students of A level art used to get grade A over a period of many years, so he was a very successful teacher too.

His time at Victoria College came to a close nearly thirty years later, in 1997, when at the age of 53, he decided to focus on his art work and his various exhibitions. He was, by then, very well known, and in 2001 he was commissioned by the States of Jersey to paint a watercolour which would appear in the menu of the official lunch given when the Queen visited Jersey. He was appointed an M.B.E. in 2006.

There is a summary of his career on various websites. Here are a few:

Robert was born in Bristol in 1944 and went on to study Architecture and Art Education in 1961, on graduating he began his career as Head of Art at the Victoria College, Jersey during which he also lectured at the Tate Gallery, became a major prize winner at the International Drawing Biennale, Cleveland, was awarded a prize for the Most Outstanding Work by a Member at the R.I. Annual Exhibition and was elected a Member of the Royal Institute.

Robert Tilling has illustrated work for, among others, Charles Causley, Spike Milligan and his paintings have appeared in over thirty books and magazines. His jazz, blues journalism has been widely published for over thirty years and he has appeared at many blues festivals as a guitarist.(2)

Robert Tilling has lived in Jersey since 1968 and has held thirty solo exhibitions, including Exeter University and the Barbican Centre, London. His work has been selected for many mixed exhibitions including the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, the Royal West of England Academy and the Contemporary Arts Society. He has gained a number of awards including the Cleveland Drawing Biennale and two at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours for 'the most outstanding work'.(3)

But perhaps while most local tributes will focus on his art work, he was also internationally known as a journalist, writer and player of jazz and blues music.

The International Guitar Seminars (IGS) began at Columbia University in New York City, and Robert Tilling was very much part of the team. He is listed among the teachers, and here are a few comments on his work at those seminars:

Individually I'd like to thank The Tillings for their generous spirit and desire to make everyone feel at home, in touch and appreciated. Bob's jokes are awful but the spirit burns bright

Bob for his energy, creativity and general merrymaking. A true entertainer and show person. Should that I gain 10% of the power of his playing

Advice from Bob Tilling on playing: "Be patient with your progress."(4)

The site also list him as "Guitar Teacher for IGS Acoustic Blues Guitar" and notes that:

Robert Tilling is a prolific journalist and writer whose reviews and essays have been published on both sides of the Atlantic. He has lectured widely at universities and festivals on the history of blues and has given many workshops on early acoustic blues styles and techniques at major European blues festivals. His enthusiasm for teaching and his relaxed guitar style is always a winner with students(4)

Bob wrote for Blueprint Magazine., Blues Review, Blues in Britain, Blues & Rhythm and many other journals. Here is an example of one of his reviews on Rick Payne, which gives, I think, something of the feel of his writing:

I was fortunate to see Payne perform a couple of years ago at the, sadly now no longer, Stroud Blues and Beyond Festival where I greatly enjoyed his natural and relaxed stage presence. This eleven track solo instrumental outing illustrates all of Payne's often highly complex, guitar skills and although not all the titles are blues based there is enough blues material to hold your attention.

On the opening title 'Shuffle' Payne pays tribute to one of his all time favourite guitar players Big Bill Broonzy where he captures much of the great man's swing and syncopation. There are two very enjoyable ragtime titles, 'Winston's Rag' and 'Halloween Rag', where he has a very distinctive touch and swings along at an infectious pace.

Among Payne's many talents, including guitar teaching, he has written a number of film scores and has included three beautiful examples here. I particularly enjoyed 'John Doe' [ a theme composed for the film John Doe And the Anti by LA film maker Jeremy Rushbear], where his guitar slide style does suggest a little of the work of Ry cooder, another of his favourite players, but this atmospheric title is very much his own.

I particularly enjoyed the two beautifully crafted titles 'Prelude' and 'Ramble' and although not blues their evocative melodies fitted comfortably alongside the more bluesy material. There is some creative mixing, often where he performs as a duet adding greatly to the enjoyment of this well produced disc. This is a very relaxed and entertaining set from a guitar player who really knows what he's doing and with confidence and sincerity.(5)

Perhaps his longest legacy in the music scene will come from his his enthusiasm for the work of the Reverend Gary Davis, which started during the early sixties:

Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, not to mention Davis's own releases. Eventually he toured in Britain, as well, where critic Robert Tilling, writing in Jazz Journal, called him "One of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers.(6)

His preoccupation with Davis led to a book, entitled "Oh! What a Beautiful City: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis 1896-1972", published in 1992, which was a 124 page glossy paperback. It was self-published, and a labour of love. Writing in Blues & Rhythm 78, April 1993, Alan Balfour commented that this was not a standard kind of biography but a "kaleidoscope of images":

Rotating around a host of black and white photographs (spanning 1952 to 1972) the reader is presented with a biographical chronology, colourful anecdotes from fellow musicians and record producers (John Townley's recollections are fascinating), concert reviews (favourable and otherwise), selected record reviews, obituaries and a discography. This inventive approach brings to the page a vividness of character that standard format biographies can often fail to achieve.

Thus, via Tilling, we learn from others that Gary Davis was by turns a switch-blade-carrying street musician, a compassionate man of God (braving a white's only hospital ward to preach over the dying Woody Guthrie) as well as a guitarist with the ability to 'teach a slug to use silverware' (to quote a former pupil of Davis). The all pervasive impression created by Tilling with his use of this material is that, although the book is about a guitar playing gospel singer whose name happens be Gary Davis, it is the story of a 'universal human being' (to paraphrase Buffy St. Marie) for whom the word 'humility' was probably invented.(7)

It is perhaps fitting to end this tribute with a few lines from Gary Davis, and I can imagine him and Bob now jamming away at an eternal blues session. The music goes on. And Bob Tilling will be sadly missed.

One of these mornings and it won't be long
I saw the light from heaven come down
You gonna look for me and I'll be gone
I saw the light from heaven come down
I saw the light, Lord, I saw the light, Lord
I saw the light, Lord
I saw the light from heaven come down
(Rev Gary Davis)



Anonymous said...

Bob taught me at Victoria College in the 70’s and I remember him well. I am sure many will have been shocked at his untimely demise. He had a booming voice; was it Bristolian? You certainly knew when “Barrbh” was breathing down your stained white collar.

I attended his art classes as a pupil and I never really learnt very much about art or how to paint. Those with talent, which was not me alas, were given additional support to progress, whilst I and many other Vic boys concentrated on mixing watercolour paint and occasionally throwing clay at each other. Some will fondly remember the ovens in the basement where extra curricular teaching occurred. Pottery making was available on Saturdays.

Bob always liked to play the hippy with his long hair and booming voice. He could be a little authoritarian at times but that was the era when such things happened and no one complained, especially if one was something special like a “Vic Boy”. Times change I suppose. It’s all relative really. We never thought to question the standard of teaching we received since our parents were pleased we attended the best school in the island.

I remember being in the new art teaching block one afternoon when in marched old Mr Lewis, the porter. He was a short fellow. He could be strict but, like Bob, was caring deep down. Lewis came in and demanded we all empty our pockets. Some clever fellow had stolen something and Lewis guessed the culprit was in our midst. He was right of course. Everyone emptied their pockets as we had no choice. Bob watched and ensured that Lewis’ requests were met. There must have been about twenty or so fifteen year old boys standing to attention, hands by their sides, whilst Lewis sifted through a selection of coins, gum, Civil War collectors’ cards, hankies (no paper tissues then!) and accumulated dirt. No one dared move, let alone snigger. We just hoped it wasn’t us he was after. Fags and chewing gum ended up hidden in some strange places whilst Lewis’ back was turned. Anyway, Lewis found his boy. It was the usual suspect. A theft had occurred of a fine leather jacket and R. R. had it stuffed in a bag. R.R. got seriously caned by the HM and was threatened with expulsion.

Bob carried a hard external appearance at times, but with hindsight I can see he had our interests at heart. I never realised he was such a good friend of Sir Philip Bailhache. One cannot imagine the archetypal Judge and hippy painter meeting on the cocktail set. It shows there is no snobbery at Victoria College and that a teacher and Governor can mix freely. Perhaps Sir Philip can encourage the powers that be to create a special Robert Tilling wing in the new island art gallery being proposed for the Weighbridge.

Good-by Bob.

Olim hoc collegium!

Rick Jones said...

I met Bob through the Jersey Acoustic Musicians Club, which has been held on a Monday night, with only a few breaks here and there, for over twenty years.

Bob was a founder member, and I myself was a mere newcomer, but I remember being distinctly happy to see Mr. Tilling and his little battered guitar case at the start of the night as it meant we were going to hear some real blues and a few stories that beggared belief, but somehow were obviously true.

He spoke of hero's of mine in the blues and folk genres as friends of his, and if I had a question about anything he was patient and happy to share his vast knowledge.

The last time he came to play for us at the Ha'penny Bridge, he told us he wasn't well, but his music and spirit, and the way he made the room quiet whilst he told his story and picked his old beaten up Gibson guitar was in no way weakened or lacking in vitality.

To hear he is gone, I am genuinely sad.
RIP Bob, we will remember you in song!