Life Behind Art - Cornish Artist Rose Hilton tells Cornwall Life about her Art and late husband

PUBLISHED: 17:37 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

Rose Hilton Credit: Anthony Crolla

Rose Hilton Credit: Anthony Crolla

Rose Hilton's art has been somewhat overshadowed by that of her late husband, Roger Hilton. In this June issue Cornwall Life finds out about her life and her work

Life Behind Art

Rose Hilton's art has been somewhat overshadowed by that of her late husband, Roger Hilton. Dr Jane Hamilton looks at her life and her work

It is 20 years since Rose Hilton, the Cornish artist, held her first one-woman show at Messum's, an art dealer based on Cork Street in London. The latest exhibition of her work, 'Rose Hilton - New Paintings', is being held there this June, and will be the first since her retrospective at Tate St Ives in 2008. After living for so long in the shadow of her talented but difficult husband, artist Roger Hilton - 20 years her senior and latterly bedridden due to the long-term effects of alcohol - she is finally achieving the recognition she deserves.

The show will coincide with the publication of a frank biography by the writer and art critic Andrew Lambirth. Including entries from the diaries that Rose has kept throughout her life, Lambirth's portrayal of the emotional and psychological struggles of an artist who had to fight for her identity, is engrossing reading for all those interested in the rich seam of art from west Cornwall in the 20th century.

Rose has lived in Cornwall for over 40 years, having moved to a farmhouse on Botallack Moor near St Just with Roger and their two sons in 1965, but she was born at Leigh, near Tonbridge in Kent, the middle child of seven. Her parents were devout Plymouth Brethren, one of the most extreme of the Protestant sects, and they recognised Rose's artistic talents from an early age. The only outlet for such creativity as far as they were concerned, however, could be through teaching others, or as a hobby. Eager to escape the restrictions of home, Rose first persuaded her parents to allow her to study at the Beckenham School of Art from where, in 1953, she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London.

After a serious bout of tuberculosis which forced her retreat to a sanatorium for a year, as well as allowing her the opportunity to reconsider her position in relation to her faith and her art, Rose returned to the Royal College in 1955 and went from strength to strength, winning the life drawing and painting prize as well as the Abbey Minor scholarship to Rome in 1958, where she spent a year. On her return she met and fell in love with Roger and the couple married in 1965, setting up home together in a house on Botallack Moor, where they lived until Roger's early death in 1975.

Much of Rose's time during the period was taken up with family concerns and her painting took second place as a result. Rose's friend, the writer and painter Molly Parkin has written about their friendship during those years, "Neither of us were painting at all when we met. Instead we were both the wives of artists, the sainted, unsung women behind our men. The keepers of children, creators of hearth and home. And Rose was brilliant in the role. When my husband and I moved from London to St Ives in the '70s, I was confronted by the full force of what being an artist's wife truly entailed down in Cornwall. Stylish creatures who came into their own in the kitchen; beautiful women who made dramatic entrances at private views; warm, generous hostesses at the head of their dinner tables; queens of interior dcor; exemplary gardeners with ripe, home-grown vegetables..."

But Rose has always been keen to stress that with her it was a case of a voluntary neglect of her art, and with two young children and an ill husband it is perhaps hardly surprising. During this period Rose's paintings were small in scale and produced infrequently, but she learned a great deal from her husband's artistic philosophy, and developed an interest in Ingres and the work of the modern French School, particularly the intense colour used by Bonnard, Dufy and Matisse. She greatly took to heart Roger's maxim that 'if you change the colour, you've got to change the tone', and Rose is above all else a great colourist.

The recent retrospective at Tate St Ives was testament to the formidable reputation Rose has built over the years following Roger's death as a St Ives artist of imagination and power. The landscapes that were exhibited at that show were a revelation to all but those who knew her work intimately. To that point she had been known for her colourful interiors often occupied by nudes, but drawing outside in the landscape surrounding her home is a regular part of Rose's routine and she occasionally also paints outdoors. Her important series of paintings of the St Austell clay pits were produced in this way. Though she rarely abandons figuration completely, it is in her Cornish landscapes that the recent leap towards abstraction is perhaps at its most apparent.

Hilton's connections with West Cornwall are represented in the use of local place names in the paintings' titles, but she also extracts something of the essence of the windswept headland on which she lives. Her drawings explore the hidden substructures of her surroundings: "the bones of [the] landscape beneath the skin of grass and vegetation," as Andrew Lambirth has described.

Rose's Cornish landscapes celebrate beauty, a quality for some reason often spurned by the serious-minded art establishment of today. As Rose says, "It doesn't upset me if people say my work is decorative. I rather like it. You see, I've gradually worked towards being more decorative."

Other recent developments in Rose's work have included experimentation with the printing technique monotype. As Andrew Lambirth says: "One of Rose's strengths as an artist has been her receptivity to new ideas. Since student days, she has never stopped learning." This latest selection of her work is testament to that statement.

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