Victor Willing | Timothy Taylor

Knight Errant (1978), pictured below and currently on show at Timothy Taylor, is a very intense painting, painted at an intensely trying time for its artist. Victor Willing had moved back to London from Portugal with his wife, Paula Rego; by all accounts, theirs was a deeply dysfunctional relationship. He’d been diagnosed with MS, a condition that would take his life a decade later. He’d been painting in a rented studio in Stepney that had no windows.

Even without knowing these circumstances, any viewer could pick up that this painting comes from a place of disquiet. There’s something troubled about the painting’s wavy lines; something claustrophobic about its hemmed-in collection of domestic objects (gas heater, chair, square of carpet); something pitiless about its hard, flat, artificial light.

Victor Willing, Knight Errant

In Stepney, Willing used to just stare at the wall and painted what came into his mind, which explains the surreal (or Surrealist) quality of this collection of objects, in which rules of perspective and gravity are simply ignored. The artist was taking ACTH, a steroid to alleviate MS symptoms, which has the side effect of playing tricks on perception. Enough for a blank wall to become something else entirely, when stared at for long enough.

“I would sit… and look at the wall in front of me, resting,” he told an interviewer at the time. “The wall in front of me dissolved and an enormous hole, about the size of my canvases, appeared and I could see through the wall.”

What he saw for Knight Errant is a scene of constrained domestic misery. (Which makes me think the title must be ironic - what kind of wandering knight owns a gas heater and a dress shirt?) The rectilinear household objects in the foreground are offset by the woozy wave of the wall and door in the background. The carpet and walls are a sick yellow and beige, respectively; the chair and shirt seem propped up on a green square of radioactive green.

The Stepney studio was an escape from day to day concerns for Willing. His art must have been an attempt to transcend the sad circumstances of his life at the time. But those concerns leapt back out at the artist when he stared at the wall, and it dissolved.

Victor Willing is at Timothy Taylor (London). 22 September - 05 November 2022