Tristram Paul Hillier was born in Beijing, China. He came to England at an early age but returned to China in 1922 to study mandarin before returning to England to continue his education at Christ’s College in Cambridge. His artistic training began in London at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1926, studying under Henry Tonks, before two further years in Paris as a pupil of André Lhote. In Paris, he came to know most of the surrealist painters, who exerted an important influence over his art, particularly Max Ernst and de Chirico. A part of the British surrealist avant-garde in the 1930s, he was a member of Unit One, led by Paul Nash. Following the Second World War, Hillier settled permanently in Somerset. Although, by nature, he was not a countryman, the countryside nonetheless provided him with the peace and isolation that became so important to his art. In 1957 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and, in 1967, a Royal Academician.
Hillier remained a surrealist throughout his career, as demonstrated in his 1983 exhibition at the Bradford Art Gallery entitled A Timeless Journey. The subjects of his paintings have an ambiguous, dream-like presence in a world of images, symbols and metaphors.