Reginald Brill (1902-1974) Reginald Brill was best known for his large-scale figure subjects of men engaged in manual labour. Their combination of monumentality and homeliness, even humour, bear witness to the artist’s central place within our native figurative tradition. Reginald Brill was born in Hither Green, London on 6 May 1902, the son of a Polish tailor father and an English mother. During his childhood, he moved with his family to Bath and then Harrogate, though domestic harmony was disrupted on the outbreak of the First World War, when his father was interned as an alien. Nevertheless, his artistic studies developed considerably during his father’s absence; winning a scholarship to Harrogate School of Art at the age of thirteen, he managed to gain a certificate in art teaching only two years later. Moving to London, in 1917, he took clerical jobs – in the City and Fleet Street – so as to afford evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art.
Then, in 1920, he received a scholarship which enabled him to attend the Slade School of Art as a full-time student under Henry Tonks. While there, he produced murals for Christopher Hatton Turnor at Stoke Rochford Hall, meeting his future wife in the process.
Brill began his career, in 1925, by contributing illustrations to Lansbury’s Labour Weekly. Yet, in 1927, he substantially widened his horizon by winning the Rome Prize in Decorative Painting; for he spent two years at the British School at Rome and – among other achievements – painted its Director, Bernard Ashmole. And, though he began to teach at Blackheath School of Art on his return to England in 1929, he went abroad again in the following year, painting in Egypt for six months at the invitation of the government. While there, he met Major Robert Gayer-Anderson, who would prove a friend of great significance. He also held his first solo show, in Cairo in March 1930, which was successful enough to allow him to take a long route back to England, via Greece and Italy. His first solo show in Britain was held at the Leicester Galleries, London, in April 1933, by which time he was teaching in several art schools. Though he used it to demonstrate his equal skill as a painter of portraits, still lifes and landscapes, he would subsequently become best known for his large-scale figure subjects.
Brill set the pattern for much of his later career in 1934, when he took an appointment as Head Master of Kingston School of Art and, in the same year, embarked on a programme of substantial paintings on the theme of ‘the Martyrdom of Man’. He would do much for the development of Kingston as an institution. In 1939, he oversaw its move to new purpose-built premises while, three years later, he began discussions with Robert Gayer-Anderson and his brother, Thomas, over the possibility of them bequeathing their family home of Little Hall, Lavenham, Suffolk, to Surrey County Council for use by the school. His own status and achievements as an artist, writer and broadcaster also helped the promotion of the school, and sealed its relationship with the surrounding community. So he involved staff and students in his design for a model seaside promenade for the Festival of Britain (1951), took on the role of official painter to the Borough of Kingston (1952), and encouraged the Borough Council to commission artists to paint local views (1955).
Following the death of Colonel T G Gayer-Anderson in 1960, Brill successfully negotiated the transfer of Little Hall, Lavenham, from his sons to Surrey Council. Two years later, he retired from Kingston and became Little Hall’s resident married warden when it opened as a hostel for art students. Though the hostel closed in 1969, Brill remained at Little Hall until his death on 14 June 1974. A retrospective of his work had opened at the Phoenix Gallery, Lavenham, three weeks before.