Obituary: Hans Tisdall

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Hans Tisdall had a long and distinguished career in art and design in Britain. He used colour and line with a formal discipline, whether for illustration, textile design or abstract painting. He wrote, "I drank the commotion of artists' life and racketeering with my mother's milk."

He was born Hans John Knox Aufseeser, the son of two artists, in Munich in 1910. After studying at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich in 1928, he was apprenticed to the sculptor Moisey Keegan. He lived and studied in Paris and in the artists' colony at Ascona in Switzerland before coming to London in 1930.

His father was a close friend of Frank Pick, the vice-chairman of the Underground Group, and his mother was Anglo-Irish. Hans started work in an advertising agency. This only lasted three days, and he took up a career as a full-time painter with a studio in Fitzroy Street, next door to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. He liked the latter more than the former, but, as Bryan Robertson explains in the catalogue to Tisdall's 1990 exhibition at the Albemarle Gallery, "he managed to escape contagion from the Bloomsbury artists".

Paintings were hard to sell, and during the 1930s, working as Hans Aufseeser, he became well-known in textile design, for Edinburgh Weavers and other firms. He made mostly large-scale patterns, abstracted from natural and historical motifs, characteristic of their time. He also took part in the revival of murals, painting the University Dockland Settlement in Barking Road, London, a private gymnasium at Brook House for Lord Sieff (on the theme of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"), the Ciros night-club in Panton Street and the Majorca Restaurant in Brewer Street. For these commissions he used an emulsion recipe of water, linseed oil, varnish and egg.

The murals tended to follow the German practice of having an irregular vignette shape rather than filling the wall. For the German emigre architect Michael Rachlis, with the artists Edward Bawden and John Armstrong, he painted decorations for the International Building Club in Park Lane shortly before the Second World War and a number of commissions for the architect Oliver Hill, including the strongly coloured illustrations of Hill's children's books Balbus (1944) and Wheels (1946).

The cover of the last issue of the short-lived magazine Night and Day, 23 December 1937, edited by John Marks and Graham Greene, was Tisdall's work. The wiry lines and flattened perspectives of his illustrations are similar to the work of Saul Steinberg, and Tisdall continued to keep large picture diaries into his old age, ranging over architecture, food and drink, fashion, heraldry and human foibles with an acute mixture of word and image. His other field of design was in book jackets, mainly for Jonathan Cape, nearly all consisting of free but simple brush lettering, comparable to the work of Berthold Wolpe for Faber & Faber, and quite unlike the static and rather precious work of British designers. Tisdall's art training in Germany included classes in sign-writing and an appreciation of the craft skills involved in painting underlay all his activities.

In 1945, Tisdall held his first one-man show at the Leger Galleries and he continued to show regularly in Britain and Germany, up to 1996. In 1947 he became a lecturer in painting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (to 1975) as well as teaching occasionally at Dartington Hall and in Venice. The growth in public art patronage after the war gave him some valuable opportunities. He was involved in the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea in 1951, making plaster centaurs for the gateway and painting a huge mural of a cockerel. He painted another large mural for Plymouth Civic Centre, commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, and designed mosaics, tapestries and sculptures for industrial patrons and educational buildings. These became more abstract over time, as did his paintings.

In 1941 Tisdall married Isabel Gallegos, daughter of a Spanish painter, who was stylist to Edinburgh Weavers before starting her own company, Tamesa Fabrics in 1964, for which Hans made many designs. They had two daughters and lived initially in a house in Royal Avenue which threatened to collapse, before moving to a modern flat overlooking the river in Chelsea. House and Garden reported,

the flat glows with colour that only a painter would be likely to use: walls and ceiling of brilliant red in the entrance-hall, brilliant purple and intense green-covered chairs against a red-carpeted floor and deep Thames-green walls in the drawing room.

Here Tisdall hung his paintings for private contemplation against a purple wall. In later years he made many long narrow works - "ingots" - in which the painted canvas carried over the faces of the deep stretchers, a painting entering the third dimension. The flat also contained a number of painted wooden constructions, some based on the towers of San Gimignano.

Despite his long residence in England, Tisdall remained European in outlook and his sensuous enjoyment of colour. Bryan Robertson has described his work as "majestically effortless". Hans Tisdall was tall with a handsome, rather square, head and a magisterial manner, tempered by wit and a desire to educate the eyes of others. He cannot be easily pigeonholed as an artist, by generation, genre or nationality so that he has yet to be incorporated in general history of his period.

Hans John Knox Aufseeser (Hans Tisdall), artist and designer: born Munich 14 August 1910; married 1941 Isabel Gallegos (two daughters); died London 31 January 1997.