It’s hard to believe now, but in the mid-20th century, west Cornwall incubated Britain’s answer to the modernism of New York and Paris. First to arrive there, in 1928, were the painters Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson; then came Nicholson’s second wife, Barbara Hepworth, and Naum Gabo, a Russian sculptor. By the early 1950s, a community of largely abstract artists had gathered in the seaside town of St Ives. They revelled in the warm Cornish light and colour, the shapes of the land and coast, and argued that they, and not Americans like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were the true inventors of abstract expressionism.
Rose Hilton, an octogenarian painter, is almost the last living exemplar of this celebrated school of artists. Yet she has never truly shared their experimental modernism. She’s sometimes patronised as a colourist, a follower of Bonnard, Matisse and the Post-Impressionists, although her palette of reds, pinks and yellows, shading into the misty blues and greens of her Cornish seascapes, is powerfully sensual. She goes her own way, often favouring figuration over abstraction: she paints nudes, mainly women, who gaze into mirrors, dry themselves after bathing, or are locked in love. Hers is a quiet voice among the noisy egos of contemporary art. She once confided to her biographer, Ian Collins, who had agreed to pose for her, that “the last man who stripped off for me came to read the electricity meter”.
It has taken many years for Hilton to win proper recognition. To achieve it she had to escape the dominance of her husband, Roger Hilton, a prominent member of the St Ives school and a pioneer of British abstraction in the early 1950s. Twenty years Rose’s senior, he was witty, alcoholic and egocentric, and so demanding of her around the house that for ten years she had to paint secretly in his absence; if he returned and smelled “turps”, he’d fly into a rage. She loved him and their two boys, and so put up with it, but his death in 1975 unleashed a dam-burst of creativity.
She was discovered in 1987 by David Messum, an art dealer visiting Cornwall from London. He bought her canvases and, in 1989, gave her the first of a dozen London shows at his gallery that culminated in a retrospective at Tate St Ives in 2008. She now wonders why she took the back-seat for so long. “There are artist couples I know who allow each other to go to their respective studios,” she says, “but Roger wasn’t like that. I was possibly of that generation where women gave in to their man.”
The image of Hilton as a submissive wife belies her vigorous art and cheerful manner, as well as an adventurous past. Rosemary Phipps was born in 1931, the child of strict Plymouth Brethren in Kent. By the time she met Roger, in 1959, she had escaped her parents, overcome tuberculosis (which had killed her brother), and was enjoying a freebooting lifestyle as an artist and teacher in London. At Sidcup art school she taught a cheeky 16-year-old named Keith Richards, who once locked “Teach” in a cupboard. In 1965, she and Roger, feeling the pinch a bit, moved to the village of Botallack in rugged “Poldark” country, a landscape of old tin mines and “a good place”, she’s since recalled, “to be shipwrecked in”.
She is now 85 and in failing health, but not complaining. Last October, Messum’s gallery staged a successful exhibition of her work; a month later, Hilary Spurling, a critic and biographer of Matisse, described her as a “remarkable artist”. A new show in Cornwall opens in two weeks. Finally, the world is catching up with her.
“Roger Reading” (1973)
Roger was regarded as a daring abstract painter during his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, but his alcoholism often made him intolerable company. “When he was being really bad and I was exhausted,” Hilton recalls, “he’d admit: ‘I know I’m a shit. Please don’t leave me.’ He’d suddenly turn on the charm.” He frowned upon his wife painting until his final years, when alcohol-related illness confined him to his bed. “At that point he said, ‘I don’t mind you painting, as long as you do it in my room. I need the company.’” She painted several pictures as he lay there, including “Roger Reading”, one of her most purely figurative works. Her embrace of figuration exasperated her husband. “Roger would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you can work in that old-fashioned way.’”
This was the first of her paintings to use a red palette, and it demonstrates her deepening feeling for colour. She had begun to realise that, rather than replicate the scene in front of her, she could recreate it with colours different from the ones that she could see.
“Favourite Things” (1997)
By the time Hilton painted “Favourite Things”, her forms were becoming less literal and colour was beginning to dominate the canvas. “This painting,” she says, “is a good example of my aim to turn the traditional still-life composition into a honing down of shapes to create something new.”
“Model in the Conservatory” (1999)
One of her very first nudes was a portrait of the aesthete Quentin Crisp, painted in 1954; this was followed by innumerable female studies, the best of which includes “La Toilette” (above), made in 1996. “The female model was the sole interest in the paintings of my earlier years,” she says. “Model in the Conservatory” shows how eventually she started to incorporate the figure into larger scenes.
Hilton’s models are often fellow artists and old friends, like the writer Molly Parkin, which deepens the intimacy: “I can chat to them and make it seem much more natural.” A German girl comes every Tuesday for three hours and poses in her cottage. Hilton likes painting women, she explains, because “I feel sympathetic to their shape.”
“Red Room” (2013)
Red is the predominant colour of many of Hilton’s most significant works. “Red Studio” (2014), which was shown in 2015 at the Royal Academy summer exhibition, is a magnificent explosion of soft reds whose palette and title pay tribute to Matisse. “Red Room” is the distillation of several paintings of rooms using deep red that Hilton began working on in 1996, initially with figures. She originally called it “Windows”, and one sees why.
“Afternoon Chat” (2014)
This was painted in the same year as “The Quarrel”, another work that focuses on two nude figures, male and female, in which the man sits slumped and tense on a bed. By contrast, the two women of “Afternoon Chat” are graceful and relaxed, even conspiratorial as they exchange confidences. Ingres’s nudes and odalisques have always influenced Hilton. In the 1970s, when her husband was still alive, she produced her Ingres series, ten works on paper using oil, gouache and charcoal. These showed women discreetly, from the rear, while the women of “Afternoon Chat” openly face the viewer without inhibitions. Their enjoyment in each other lifts the spirits.
“Newlyn Harbour III” (2013)
Cornwall has been the making of Hilton’s art. “She draws from it a sense of freedom, of being on the edge of things,” according to Ian Collins. Since 2008, she has kept a big studio in Newlyn, a town near Penzance, where she painted this view several times. Executed in soft greens and greys, this version has an immediacy, a way of capturing the light and the water, that draws on her long-standing use of pastels.
Ken Howard, a painter and contemporary of Hilton’s, says that “Newlyn Harbour III” is in the experimental tradition of the St Ives school. “West Cornwall has always attracted innovative artists such as Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore, and Rose Hilton fits comfortably into this pantheon.”
Rose Hilton & Friends: 50 Years in Cornwall Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, Cornwall, January 28th - February 26th