Derek Hill: A Centenary Exhibition, The Redfern Gallery, London, 9 – 16 May 2016
In 1961 Bryan Robertson, the innovative and dynamic director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, mounted a retrospective exhibition of the work of Derek Hill. Robertson was mid-way through his remarkable tenure at the Whitechapel and had already put on exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko — the first substantial showing of either artist in England — along with other such international modernists as Mondrian, Malevich and Nicolas de Stael. He was equally committed to showing English artists, and had presented museum shows of Turner, Stubbs, John Martin, Gillray and Rowlandson. Nor did he neglect mid-career contemporary painters: Michael Ayrton, Josef Herman, Merlyn Evans, Robert Colquhoun, Cecil Collins, Ceri Richard and Prunella Clough among them. Derek Hill (1916 – 2000) was one of the contemporaries, but not an obvious choice. Robertson followed his own taste and supported those he believed in. The Whitechapel exhibition put Hill on the map. It was only afterwards that he came to be really recognised and celebrated as a portrait painter.
Grey Gowrie is perhaps Hill’s staunchest supporter. He has written the main monograph on the artist, and this spring arranged a centenary loan exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London’s Cork Street. The accompanying catalogue reprinted Gowrie’s Appraisal of Hill from the 1987 monograph and illustrated a handful of works. The exhibition featured 40 pictures, which included portraits as well as landscapes. Redfern’s beautifully top-lit central gallery contained the best works, most impressive of which were the small sensitive landscapes. I also liked the tranquil energy of the more substantial Harvesting at St Columb’s (c.1960), and the compressed poetry of Ben Bulben from Classiebawn (c.1968). If Hill is better known as a society portrait painter, his most effective pictures are in fact informal Irish landscapes, mostly painted on or from Tory Island, off the north-west coast of Donegal. In fact, Gowrie goes as far as to state that Hill was ‘the best painter of the Irish landscape since Jack Yeats’.
Hill clearly had a gift for friendship and knew everybody, from Establishment figures to the haute bohème, and one of the pleasures of the long interview in Gowrie’s book is discovering unexpected connections and asides. Hill’s friendship with Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Gowing is probably not so surprising as his knowing Zoran Music and Morandi, or his support for the paintings of John Bratby. Hill was devoted to Bernard Berenson, and the following quote I found immensely revealing. ‘He [Berenson] thought very highly of John Berger as a critic: not the attacks on the bourgeoisie but as the only person in Europe who looked at paintings as if they were individuals, people’.
Hill painted five or six portraits a year, and had sufficient private income to refuse commissions and only paint those for whom he felt a certain sympathy. Grey Gowrie met him as a teenager when they were neighbours in Donegal, and he writes of their friendship: ‘More than anyone he helped define my own interests in the visual arts.’ Hill’s work may be described as traditional picture-making with the occasional nod to Modernism, and the chief influences on his work include Constable, Corot and Courbet. Both Berenson and Kenneth Clark admired his early paintings of olive pruners, done whilst staying on Berenson’s estate in Tuscany. Hill was widely knowledgeable in the history of art, and took inspiration over a broad field. His early training as a theatre designer in Munich (really a false start) led to a knowledge of Bauhaus disciplines, and there was usually an underlying geometry to his compositions. He described his 1984 portrait of Prince Charles as an attempt at ‘a Hogarth-type drawing in oils’, while his studies of monks on Mount Athos recall Daumier. His wonderfully wicked demi-caricature of his old friend John Craxton is a masterpiece of characterisation. In the 1950s he was art director of the British School in Rome for nearly five years, and it was then that he came to know such painters as Bratby and Michael Andrews, Joe Tilson and Tony Fry.
Gowrie writes in his Appraisal:
Definitions are difficult, but all works of art, surely, must satisfy one criterion in order to deserve the name. They must be unique and universal. As we read or look or listen we need to be able to identify something original, with its own stylistic personality, and recognise something general. The last quality is what allows us to say, ‘There! That’s it. That’s the real thing.’ Even an uncompromising abstract painting, unconnected with real life as we perceive it, needs a different kind of reality, an object-life of its own.
Just such a group of paintings — a number of them uncompromisingly abstract — comprised the inaugural show at the Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge (February – May 2016). This was entitled ‘Generation Painting 1955-65’ and was drawn from the collection of Downing’s celebrated art world alumnus, Sir Alan Bowness.
Bowness (born 1928), who was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1980 to 1988, developed an interest in contemporary British art in the postwar years, first as a writer and critic, then as a curator. He was responsible for some of the most perceptive and illuminating writing about such artists as Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Patrick Heron, and this quartet features strongly in his collection, much of which is destined for the Fitzwilliam Museum. A number of his finest paintings were gifts from the artists, but he also bought work from dealers and at auction. The exhibition, of just seventeen pictures, was beautifully installed and lit at the Heong Gallery, and perfectly captured a moment in the art world with which Bowness himself is intimately identified. A delightful small exhibition, it is usefully commemorated in a fully-illustrated catalogue which contains an essay by Heong curator Rachel Rose Smith, a heartfelt tribute to Bowness by Duncan Robinson and a fascinating memoir by Bowness himself. Quite a contrast to Derek Hill, but he too was a collector, and would have understood and appreciated Bowness’s desire to be surrounded by the art that inspired and intrigued him.
Andrew Lambirth is a writer about art who also writes poetry and makes collages. Besides contributing to a range of publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian and RA Magazine, he was art critic for The Spectator from 2002 until 2014, and has collected his reviews in a paperback entitled A is a Critic. Among his recent books are monographs on the artists David Inshaw, Eileen Gray and William Gear. He lives in Suffolk surrounded by pictures.