Tilson was a student at St. Martin’s School of Art, 1949-52, and at the Royal College of Art, 1952-5, where he won the Knapping and Rome Prizes.
Between 1955-7 Tilson travelled in Italy and Spain, which had a marked influence on his early work. After winning the Gulbenkian Foundation Prize in 1960, Tilson exhibited in the Paris Biennale and Carnegie International Exhibition, in Pittsburgh, in 1961, and had the first of several appearances at the Venice Biennale in 1964. Had first one-man show at New London Gallery in 1961, the 1960s seeing the burgeoning of his international exhibiting career. He became associated with the Royal College’s generation of Pop Artists, but was always prepared to experiment with novel subjects, sometimes stemming from his eclectic reading, and materials. Tate Gallery and Arts Council hold his work. Lived for some time in London, later in Wiltshire and Italy. Joe was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991.