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


Roger Hilton (1911 – 1975)


140 X 127 CM
Accession number


The stripes, blocks and lines of this painting overlap like the folded flaps of a cardboard box, wedged underneath each other in what is almost a puzzle that finally presents a flat surface. Stepping closer, it becomes possible to guess how Hilton laid them down: the orange-brown horizontal stripe is covered by the vertical, glossy black block of oil, but dirtied by an earlier brush full of black paint, and the central brown shape nearly, but not quite hides a similarly-sized area of purple. To its right, dry-brushed scratches of light blue seem to predate everything but the dirty cream of the primed background. This doesn’t get us very far, however, as Hilton is being studiously chaotic. A natural left-hander, an infection later forced him to use his right to paint his last, small-scale gouaches, and Andrew Lambirth, for one, would “love to know” if he elected to use the same hand on the swooping, scribbling black lines we see here, in an “attempt to access the state of mind below the deliberate, to tap in to the spontaneous and untutored”. [1] His increasing use of charcoal in paintings around this period [2]shows an openness to experiment within the limits what he had relatively recently decided had to be a strictly 2D painterly surface.

Hilton’s habit of including dates in his titles helps us place the painting in what was an important year in the development of a career that had only really begun to pick up in his forties. His friend Terry Frost took 1956 as the year “when Roger did his little switch from abstraction to figuration”.[3] Hilton himself called the paintings he exhibited at London’s Gimpel Fils Gallery in September 1956“semi-figurative expressionism”, as opposed to the fully Abstract Expressionism on show at the Tate Gallery that year. Though initially impressed by what was essentially an American import, he had dismissed it by the Sixties, identifying, like many of his generation in Britain, more readily with the art of France, where he had studied in before the war.

“Allusive abstraction (neither completely abstract nor representational)” [4] is David Brown’s attempt to describe how Hilton’s paintings remained essentially abstract, but invites associations with objects from the external world. The stalk and bowl of a wineglass, for example, might come to mind in this painting, given Hilton’s eventually fatal reliance upon alcohol to loosen him up enough to paint.

Another frequent critical comparison is with the Cornish landscape, which began to feature as he rented a studio in St. Ives in the middle of 1956. This brought him into a thriving artistic community that included the poet W. S. Graham and the painter-writer Patrick Heron, though his angry drunkenness tested these friendships on a regular basis. In August, and at Christmas, he stayed at the Herons’ house. Something of the stubborn but lovable awkwardness of Hilton’s life and work comes across in his wife, Ruth’s account of how he settled in to the area in which he would spend the rest of his life:

"He began to see what all the fuss was about. It was easier and cheaper to live there, a great landscape to move in, and there was always somebody to talk to about the job. Roger went on protesting that it was dangerous provincial nonsense. “It’s all in here,” I remember him saying once, tapping his head. “All this tomfoolery about scenery.”"[5]

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] In Roger Hilton: Swinging Out into the Void [exh. cat.](Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard), p.24.
[2] Luke Elwes, Ibid, p.40.
[3]1990 interview, cit. Lambirth, Roger Hilton: The Figured Language of Thought (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), p.112.
[4] David Brown, ‘Hilton, Roger (1911–1975)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: OUP, 2004; online edn, May 2006); [ www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31236, accessed 23 July 2010]
[5] Cit. Lambirth, p.115.