21st is one of the most straightforwardly Pop of Tilson's paintings of the early 1960s, a major work within a group of painted constructions depicting on a vastly inflated scale such ordinary objects as a keyhole, interlocking puzzles, building blocks and wooden toys. In this case the opened greeting card depicted was not based on a found object, but was instead designed by the artist himself. Unlike other works of this type, which were made as presents for family or friends - as in the case of a painting (later destroyed) made for the fifth birthday of his son Jake, and another in the form of a wedding card given to Peter Blake and Jann Haworth on the occasion of their marriage in that same year - 21st was created with no particular individual in mind. It was while he was working on these that Tilson produced one of his key works, A - Z Box of Friends and Family, as a permanent record of the network of friendships with other artists including Blake, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Richard Smith.
Communication lies at the heart of Tilson's art: the exchange of ideas through words and images, already in evidence here, has continued through to his mature work, often in later years in the form of Greek inscriptions and ancient emblematic motifs. His choice of greeting cards and postcards as motifs for some of his classic Pop works - for example the 1965 screenprint P.C. from N.Y.C. replicating a concertina set of postcards - was an early and playful expression of this central theme. Speaking about this group of works in March 2012, Tilson happily admits to indulging in them a strain of sentimentality.
Between 1957 and the family's departure to Wiltshire in 1972, the Tilsons lived in a large house and studio on Argyll Road, just off Kensington High Street in W8, and it was there that 21st and his other major Pop works were created. It was also at that address where Joe and his artist wife Jos regularly hosted salons at which artists and writers met for a fruitful exchange of ideas.
For this and other early Pop works, such as the brightly coloured For Jake and Anna, 1961, dedicated to his eldest two children, Tilson made robust use of the carpentry skills he had acquired as a teenager. Although by the end of the 1960s he had moved towards a slicker, more machine-made look and industrial processes, his first Pop artifacts were distinguished by their robust traditional materials and pointedly hand-crafted look. There are allusions here and in related works, such as Look!, 1964 (suggesting an old-fashioned advertisement for an optician), to the folk art of sign-painting. Perhaps out of deference to his working-class roots and out of respect for craft skills passed on from generation to generation, Tilson relished creating his own twist on plain-speaking materials and methods. In the case of 21st, the envelope is made of canvas and the inserted 'card' of plywood; the key itself, made from two sheets of plywood, covered in silver paint and then glued on to the underlying plywood surface, advances towards the viewer with a heraldic confidence. The artist recalls that he might first have applied a layer of acrylic paint as a base onto which he layered the brushmarks in oils.
The most prominent element within the design of 21st is the embossed silver-coloured key at its centre. The English custom at the time, as Tilson recalls, was to give a key to the family home to each child when he or she reaches adulthood, signifying a recognition of their maturity and independence and offering a practical solution for coming and going as they please.
The stencilled lettering devised by Tilson for this picture was used by him also in other works of that time, with reference not only to the words displayed in this form on the paintings of Jasper Johns made during the preceding decade but further back also to the Cubism of Braque and Picasso; later Tilson traced the origins of stencilled words on paintings as far back as Cézanne's Achille Emperaire (1869-70, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), on which the sitter's name and profession ('PEINTRE') are emblazoned along the canvas's top edge.
21st served as the point of departure for an editioned print published a year later under the same title, one that Tilson regards as his first multiple because of its three-dimensional physicality as an object in its own right. For the multiple he created a different card design and a new version of the dated postmark, transferring the location from one London postal district to another (West Brompton SW10 to South Kensington SW7) and changing the date in order to reflect the different moments of production. The franking in the painting is an illusion, not printed but carefully recreated by hand with a paintbrush. These games with illusion and representation, with reality and artifice, add a final lighthearted touch to a painting that celebrates coming of age and exudes the confidence of an artist who found himself at the core of the Pop Art movement when London was at last seen as an international centre of the art world.
We are very grateful to Marco Livingstone for preparing the catalogue entries for lots 16, 17 and 18, and to Joe Tilson for responding to Marco Livingstone's questions about the present lot.