Willy Tirr (né Tichauer) was born into a secular, Jewish family in Stettin, Germany, in 1915 and raised in Berlin. Following the rise of Nazism, he fled to England in June 1939, living in London before, following the introduction of internment in 1940, he was sent to Australia aboard the infamous 'Dunera'. In 1941 he joined the army, eventually serving in the Intelligence Corps. Following his marriage in 1942, he changed his name to Tirr and moved to Leeds. A self-taught painter, he was initially appointed in 1957, alongside Jacob Kramer, to teach amateur evening classes at Leeds College of Art (absorbed into Leeds Polytechnic in 1962), going on to become Head of Fine Art in 1968, a post he held until his retirement in 1980. He painted in a self-built studio adjoining his house, moving among an artistic circle which included Terry Frost (with whom he held a joint exhibition in York in 1957).

He had a solo exhibition at Ben Uri in 1965 and in 1984 became artist-in-residence at the University of Wollongong, Australia, when musician Edward Cowie observed of his work that 'Neither the tragedy of war, the passions of love and friendship, the tides of experience thrown up by the world journeyings or the ebb and flow of public taste in the arts has ever caused him to lose integrity or a richly spiritual personal identity'. Willy Tirr died in Leeds in 1991; in May 1992 a concert was held at Ben Uri in celberation of his memory with violinist Ruth Waterman, accompanied by Peter Pettinger on piano.