The maverick brilliance of Bill

Posted 18th March 2024

Those settlers new to the city might not have heard his name before, but they will know Bill Billings’ work. It’s scattered all over the expanse of Milton Keynes, raising smiles, still triggering conversations and reminding us of the important role art has to play in everyday life.

Because, simply, art matters and no-one understood that better than Bill. In this month’s Museum feature, Sammy Jones looks back at the man and his incredible legacy…

It is his work that provided Milton Keynes with some of its more fun, unique and off the wall pieces of public art. Those same words are perfect to sum up the creator behind wild and wonderful works like the Peartree Bridge Triceratops, which is part of our new city’s fabric, but still thrills visitors as they drive by it on the V8.

Bill was a passionate advocate of the new town and spent decades here, colouring up its landscape with his creations. His influence, paired with an unkempt passion and refusal to be tamed made him all the more essential.

And Bill’s generosity of time and knowledge meant that he worked with everyone; from prisoner to pupil to dignitary, treating one and all the same.

Born in Islington in 1938, he left school at 15 years old, going on to serve an apprenticeship as a printer. In the 1960s he served with the SAS in Aden in Yemen, receiving not one, but two Arabian Service Medals for his work.

He later worked as a telephone engineer, but his introduction to the locality came during his time as a lorry driver on the building sites that would become early estates in Milton Keynes.

It wasn’t only sculpture and painting that Bill could do with what appeared to be enviable ease, but he also drew and worked in music and his introduction to the arts was as a poet – working under the guidance of Jack Trevor Story whose creative space was here at Milton Keynes Museum. In fact, Bill styled himself as the Poet Lorryate. Nope, that’s not a spelling mistake!

Kids painting staircase at Bletchley Car Park – pIc Living Archive

Bill passed away in 2007, but I still remember with fondness our colourful conversations.

During one visit to his working home, at The Old Telephone Exchange in Newport Pagnell, he became ever more animated as he asked my photographer and I to guess the name of the swirl and splatter of the multi-coloured paints on one particular canvas. Eventually, he gave up the game, “It’s the female orgasm!” he declared, with a wide grin. Of course.

Bill spent 18 years working with Milton Keynes College, and it was that role which saw him engaging with prisoners at Woodhill College – something he did for a decade.

“I felt that I was needed,” he had told me, “I was born into poverty. I was very poor as a kid and I have an affinity for deprived people, and I worked with them all, from every spectrum – from those with no TV licence to the heavies, the quite dangerous. You’ve got to occupy tigers…” he had said, by way of explanation.

There was a mutual appreciation between pupil and teacher.

“If you are respectful to them they are respectful back,” he said, “and I’ve never betrayed anyone, never sold anyone out.”
Perhaps Bill’s most notorious pupil was Charles Bronson, and they got on just fine: “I found him very humorous. I didn’t dislike him at all…I found Charlie fair with me.”

By all accounts, Bill was more than ‘just’ a teacher, he was a person who made a connection with people, someone who teased the best from everyone – and he left an impression.

“They’ve grown up to be policemen, villains, teachers, headmasters, but people still write to me or come to find me,” he recalled.

It wasn’t only former pupils who looked to get in touch with him. He reached Hollywood too – receiving a letter from Steven Spielberg, and what about the time that rock superstars Bon Jovi joined Bill to paint that Jurassic creation we mentioned a little earlier?

Not all of his creations have survived, but the Caldecotte Fossil Park and Wolverton’s famous train mural are among those that can still be seen, and while it’s not always appreciated for you to climb on his precious artworks, you are encouraged to take a pew with the seated couple in Wolverton’s Secret Garden. That sculpture was his last piece of work, completed shortly before he passed away.

Here at the Museum, he had helped with the creation of the concrete cows, and the snowman that greets visitors daily as they arrive to enjoy our history is another lasting tribute to Bill’s work.

The Lakes Estate dinosaur, Leonasaurus Rex, was built by Bill with students from Bletchley’s Leon School, in the early 1990s. The sculpture was the idea of former headmaster Bruce Abbott, and David Ashford worked as project coordinator.

Despite opposition, the Jurassic structure was later moved to Warren Park in Bletchley, where it wasn’t afforded the maintenance it deserved.

The cost to restore and remove the statue was recently considered ‘prohibitive’ and so Leonasaurus has been lost forever.
Just like those real Dino’s it represented, its extinction was recently announced to make way for development. You might say it was a loss of monstrous proportions.

When I last interviewed him, I had asked Bill for his thoughts on the ‘modern art’ of the time: ‘Does a sawn-though, pickled cow float your boat?’ I had enquired.

“I want to do that to the concrete cows, to see the bedsprings in them,” he replied with a mischievous giggle, “I’m into every medium, I love it all, it overlaps…people who don’t like modern art go to IKEA, they wear it, they are still living it. They don’t understand that their logos are abstractions!

“As an artist you have to have the whole pot pourri,” he had insisted. Despite the volume and quality of his creativity, as is so often the case with pioneers and those who refuse to conform, Bill didn’t make a fortune from his art.

He did receive an MBE though. Pretty good for a maverick. He also enriched the lives of more people than he could have imagined, raising cheer with all those fortunate enough to come into contact with his work, and enthusing those youngsters who he inspired with his teaching.

“Although I’ve never made much money, I’ve got a lot of riches in my kids and my work. I feel I’m one of the richest people I know,” he said.
His character and passion drew people to him, and whether or not people agreed with him, they couldn’t help but respect Bill and his no airs and graces style.

“If I have had any enemies it’s because I’m crude and scruffy,” he had laughed, “But I’ve always stayed true to myself.” And he always had the best interest of Milton Keynes at the heart of all he did.

Unless stated, all images are courtesy of The Living Archive –

Milton Keynes Museum is one of the best interactive museums, a perfect outing for all ages, staffed by friendly volunteers, and highly recommended by visitors on TripAdvisor.

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