Joe Tilson was born in 1928 in London. From 1944 to 1946, he worked as a carpenter and joiner, before carrying out his National Service in the Royal Armed Services in the late 1940s. From 1949 to 1952 he studied at St. Martin’s School of Art in London and from 1952 to 1955 at the Royal College of Art in London. While at the Royal College, he received the Rome Prize, which took him to live in Italy in 1955. In 1957, he returned to London and began teaching at St. Martin’s School of Art. Subsequently, he also taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College in London, King’s College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Hamburg.
Tilson's early works are conventional and realist in style, featuring contemporary subject matter taken from his surroundings and travels. Using skills that he honed as a carpenter, Tilson began producing reliefs in wood and eventually, his work developed a highly formalized, abstract style. As the Pop Art movement emerged, Tilson began producing works featuring bold colors and geometric forms. During the 1960s he produced editioned screenprints and multiples that made reference to contemporary events and political figures of the time. In more recent years, he has continued to make screenprints, using more traditional techniques such as aquatint, etching and woodcuts.
Tilson had his first one-man shows at the Marlborough Gallery in London in 1962 and at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1963. Tilson’s work first gained international exposure at the Boyman’s Museum in Rotterdam in 1964.