Joe Tilson was born in London and worked as a carpenter before serving in the RAF. He began his formal art training in the 1950s, studying first at St Martin’s, then at the Royal College of Art, winning the Rome Prize in 1955, which took him to Italy for a year. He began to experiment with working in two and three dimensions at the same time, synthesising his experience of carpentry with his training in art, producing wood reliefs, and work with strong grid structures, which gave his art a strong sense of form whilst it retained a homemade appearance.
Tilson developed a vocabulary of symbolic forms and structures, many indebted to early civilisations, such as labyrinths, and the ziggurat from Mesopotamia, as well as inspiration from the printed media and Pop Culture. These architectural forms were fused with a vibrant, even psychedelic palette, so redolent of the 1960s and 1970s. Tilson's work is well represented in the Tate and the MoMA and is connected to the first wave of British Pop Art.