Victor Willing (1928–1988) is probably best known as Paula Rego’s husband painter, whom he met at art school in the 1950s and eventually overshadowed him. Now, London’s Timothy Taylor gallery is trying to restore this balance with an exhibition in London next month, which will be Willing’s first sales show in over 20 years.
William Coldstream’s flagship student 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 greatly admired by the eminent critic David Sylvester, who described him as “a spokesman for his generation. “With his captivating and dimly lit nudes. But the admiration did not translate into sales, and in 1956 he was persuaded by his father-in-law to stop painting and run an electronics factory in Lisbon. However, business did not go well and in 1974 the family returned to London To make matters worse, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was only 38 years old.
Yet he continued to paint, taking a completely different trajectory: colorful, slightly surreal compositions and expressionist heads rendered with self-taught simplicity. ACTH, the steroid drug he was prescribed for MS, also played tricks on his perception. So, as he sat in his windowless studio in Stepney staring at the white walls for hours, he began to have visions that he referred to as paintings, many of which will be on display.
“I found that I was very tired, tired but not sleepy,” he told art critic Alistair Hicks in 1987. “I would sit in an armchair and look at the wall in front of me, resting. And I started to get the impression that the wall in front of me had melted and a huge hole appeared, the size of my canvases, and through the wall I could seemingly see a room on the other side.
These works attracted the interest of curators and were exhibited in the 1980s in exhibitions in the Serpentine and Whitechapel art galleries. In his introduction to the 1986 Whitechapel exhibition, the then director of the gallery, Nicholas Serota, wrote how Willing was “then as now, little known and underrated”, and how in the 1970s he began to produce “strange conjunctions of metaphysical objects. … like a comet fire that will 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 the Karsten Schubert in Soho in London, a gallery associated with the rising Young British Artists. These latter paintings were made under difficult circumstances, but they worked. Taylor’s exhibit will focus on these “fiery comets” from the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in a triptych of heads she made after a long period of studying hats worn on television during Ladies Day in Ascot.
After his death, Rego’s trajectory went up, but Willing’s trajectory went down. In 1987, for example, he had given away a triptych of little redheads at the Whitechapel auction which he sold as an estimated £ 8,500. But four years later, after his death, the same painting failed to find a buyer at auction for £ 5,000.
A small upside took place in 2005 when Charles Saatchi, a huge Rego fan who had also bought numerous copies from Willing, decided to leave 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 recovery is underway with prices reaching six figures in some cases, Taylor says. Interest has been sparked by two museum-style exhibitions held at Chichester’s Pallant House and Hastings Contemporary over the past decade.
Taylor met Willing in the 1980s when he worked at Mayfair’s Bernard Jacobson Gallery. Since then, she has opened on her own with new galleries in London and New York to showcase young contemporaries such as Antonia Showering and Honor Titus, and post-war European masters such as Antoni Tapies and Simon Hantai, who are hitting the million-now mark pounds. Taylor doesn’t want to group Willing with the older ones, but with the younger generation because her “defined image” fits better, she says. Of course, surrealist-inspired young artists are all the rage.
Young collectors may not know anything about Willing yet, but Taylor confidently valued his work from £ 8,000 for drawings to £ 150,000 for the largest painting in his exhibition: the visionary, 13 feet wide and thriving golden apple tree, Cythere.
A devoted curator who always puts artists first
The taxes were paid following the death of art consultant and curator Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts (1952–2022). “He had a vision and it gave me what all artists need: a sense of self-confidence,” says Koen Vanmechelen, whose Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, in which the artist crosses chickens from around the world to promote concepts of diversity and identity, she curated when she was director of the Lisson Gallery in 2000. As gallery owner Anthony Reynolds says: “In common with the most interesting artists, the adjective that best describes what Jill has done is ‘amazing'”.
Nicholas Logsdail, founder of the Lisson Gallery, where she worked as a senior director for nine years with leading sculptors Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Richard Wentworth and Anish Kapoor, said, “Jill was primarily the person of an artist, she took care of them, got them out of trouble ”.
Between 2005 and 2012 she was a partner of the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery 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 particular vision of contemporary art. She held artists in the highest regard and was entirely devoted to their work and well-being. She has also been involved in the construction of very important collections and has initiated many ambitious exhibition projects ”.
When Jill started working at the Ropac gallery, she quickly established a close working relationship with the artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. “She spent countless hours with us,” says Emilia, “her positivity was contagious and very good for the artists she worked with, since many of us often get depressed. She worked 24/7 to find a good place for our works. In 2009, Jill organized a traveling exhibition of our white paintings, Under the Snow, under which there were glimpses of reality, which has successfully toured museums in Europe and Spain and has practically run out.
Philippe Méaille, the French collector with the largest collection of works by British conceptual artists Art & Language, at the Château de Montsoreau on the Loire, says: “Jill was a contemporary art activist, convinced that the world could be saved through the ‘art”. Leading Slovakian collector Igor Lah, founder of the upcoming Lah Contemporary Art Museum in Slovenia, gave a speech at Jill’s funeral on Friday saying that her collection would not have been the same without her.