© Estate of Roger Hilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2023.

OCTOBER 1960 (BLUE) 1960

Roger Hilton (1911 – 1975)


106.7 X 89 CM
Accession number


The bright shade of blue that dominates this picture could be the Celtic Sea on a hot day; its top runs straight across the canvas at 90 degrees, like a horizon line, and its lower reach curves around like the bay. A swirl of yellow peeps below the top left corner, where a child might logically think the sun should go. ‘Children’s art ’, Roger Hilton said, ‘is often charming and you can borrow from it. The difference is I think that children are essentially realists, whereas a mature painter is not.’

It was not until he was entering middle age that Hilton matured as a painter, which for him meant going abstract (later in the 1960s he would do the controversial thing by returning to the figurative). Like others of his generation, World War II had imposed a halt on his development: as a commando, he had been taken prisoner of war in the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, and spent the rest of the war interned. He returned with a thirst for action.

By 1960, Hilton was part of the scenery in Cornwall, that remote tip of southwest England. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had moved there at the outbreak of war, finding it to be a repository for their purist values. They paved the way for a colony of likeminded artists to gather in the post-war decades. The St Ives School, as it came to be known, counted among the gang Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter, and Patrick Heron, at whose invitation, Roger Hilton joined them. Every summer for four years, Hilton journeyed down from London to paint in a studio in the small fishing port of Newlyn – 1960 was his last summer in that particular studio, and he soon made a permanent move.

In this picture Hilton scoots back and forth between contrasts. The blue shape is densely filled in but scruffy against the canvas wherethe brush has dried out. Zooming diagonally across the picture plane, a geometric charcoal configuration noses towards a thick white rhomboid, while yellow streaks have been dragged horizontally overhead. The multi-directional currents meet on the canvas like winds at a peninsular. With a breezy disinhibition, Hilton has drawn in charcoal directly over the paint. Charcoal is conventionally used for under-drawings, but by reversing the order of play, it is as if anything could happen. So while October 1960 (Blue) seems to chime with the Newlyn landscape, it is more about what was happening with the paint at the time of painting. In 1960 he explained, ‘In titling my pictures I took a look at them and wrote down the first thing that came into my head. If nothing came I didn't give a title.’ As in the present piece, Hilton’s titles often record the date of the painting’s completion, underlining the fact that painting is a durational activity, done in the here and now.

Text by Dorothy Feaver