70 years of painting in Hong Kong: artist Brian Tilbrook’s journey from realism to abstract art

  • War and Peace would have been an apt title for Hong Kong Arts Centre survey of life’s work of British artist who has lived in the city since 1965
  • Tilbrook enjoyed much success as a realist painter until he found himself thinking ‘of what came from within me’ and adopted a semi-abstract style
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 5:51pm

Hong Kong-based artist Brian Tilbrook’s memories of the second world war, the Korean war, the 1960s riots and the dramatic changes in his adopted home over more than half a century have been distilled into a lifetime of paintings filled with light and darkness, and chaos and order.

Simply titled “A Retrospective”, a wide-ranging selection of his artworks is now on display at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a venue relevant to the artist’s career given he has worked on numerous sets in its Shouson Theatre for different local theatre companies.

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“There were various things I thought of calling the exhibition,” says the British-born Tilbrook, 86, resident in Hong Kong since 1965. He has settled with “a retrospective” but thinks it sounds “rather dusty”.

Looking out at the serene sea view from his Lamma Island studio, the jovial white-haired artist turns solemn when he suggests that one alternative title for an exhibition summarising 70 years of his works – “War and Peace” – because of the references to history and the strong, visual contrasts present in his work.

Indeed, the theme of life and death prevails in one of Tilbrook’s earliest paintings at the solo show. Ruins of St. Paul’s (1948) shows the aftermath of the air raids on London. “It is basically a rockery, and though a sad memorial to a building destroyed, little purple plants are forcing their way up through the stones. And I thought that was quite magic in a way. Life goes on.”

The yin and yang of complementary forces persist throughout his subsequent works, especially after he abandoned his earlier focus on realism and switched to a semi-abstract style employing both Asian and Western symbols in the 1990s.

He had much success as a realist painter. One of his best-loved works is the massive mural of Hong Kong’s historic harbourfront inside the Hong Kong Club. He was also commissioned by the Hong Kong government to produce 50 paintings of heritage buildings for a book printed in 1989, an experience which triggered his transition towards the world of abstract artwork.

“I’d had enough of painting realistically,” he says. “More and more, I found myself thinking in terms of what came from within me, rather than what came from without – sometimes the two are married together.”

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Tilbrook says he likes the freedom he has to produce something “hopefully unlike anything anyone else has produced, whereas when you are working realistically, you’re governed by a language of colour and shape and form”.

His most recent work, Triumph (2018) explores the disparity and relationship between hard work and setbacks, perseverance and success.

An orb of red and white is named Triumph as it emerges from its trials and tribulations, despite heading downwards.

More and more, I found myself thinking in terms of what came from within me, rather than what came from without
Brian Tilbrook

“You could argue that it is coming down to earth. Too many of our hopes rest in the clouds, and down to earth is where it is all happening”, he says.

Orbs and circles of light are common features in Tilbrook’s semi-abstract works. Tilbrook says the spheres put a “heart” into the picture – they’re a focal point for potential. They also represent the persistent theme of contrast between concepts the artist attempts to convey in his paintings.

“I’m very aware that I could be accused of being a bit pedantic, of always putting these little orbs of light somewhere in the picture and sometimes quite large, but it is my way of giving a source of energy to the painting.”

Brian Tilbrook – A Retrospective, Experimental Gallery, 3/F, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai

Open: 10am-6pm. Jan 4 to 19, 2019.