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Contemporary Art

Roger Hilton, One of the Most Innovative Voices in Post-War Art

By Sotheby's
From 6 June to 4 July 2019, S|2 London presents an exhibition of never-before-seen works charting the final years of Roger Hilton’s pioneering, and provocative, career.

B orn in Middlesex in 1911, Roger Hilton is thought to be one of the most unique and innovative voices in post-war British art. At the time Hilton was working in the 1950s, abstraction had few followers in England, making him an inventive exception among English artists.

His paintings were spontaneous in gesture allowing him to be one of the boldest yet subtlest colourists, and yet they were also radical and often reckless, mirroring his turbulent story towards the end of his life.

Hilton has become known as a pioneer of abstraction and is remembered for his childlike vision, along with his often outrageous behaviour and intemperance, which manifested in many of his works. He began his art education at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1929 to 1931 studying under Henry Tonks.

“You have to be pretty witty with poster paints, if they are not to become inert; the new paintings (started in December 1972) are almost pointillist in their complexity, to overcome the natural inertia of poster paints. I have reached a stage now of simplifying. Art is essentially a breaking out, a shedding of old moulds. Every true artist is a revolutionary, but only in his own domain. He probably does not even vote.”
Roger Hilton, In a Letter to Peter Townsend, 1973

Despite the offer of a scholarship from the Slade, he decided instead to move to Paris with an allowance from his father. There he spent some time studying at the Académie Ranson under the artist Roger Bissière. Hilton then went on to show annually with the London Group and had his first solo exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery in 1936.

He worked as a schoolteacher at Bryanston School, Dorset, from 1947 to 1948, and later taught at Central School of Arts and Crafts, in 1954 for two years. During this time, Hilton continued to develop his artwork, which became increasingly abstract following the influence of the Dutch artist, Constant, who Hilton had met in London and travelled with in the early 1950s. His work later began to gain some recognition, with the Tate buying their first Hilton painting in 1957.

Following visits to Cornwall since the 1950s, Hilton finally settled in west Cornwall in 1965, the same year he married his second wife, Rose Phillips. In Cornwall he became a prominent member of the St. Ives school, which would go on to become an influential movement in Modern British Art.

By December 1972 Hilton was becoming incapacitated - a physical and psychological debilitation brought on, in part, by alcoholism. Confined to his bed and unable to paint in oils, Hilton’s work underwent an abrupt change of style, defined by colourful figuration in gouache after the artist commandeered a set of poster paints given to his son that same Christmas. It is this final body of work, born from the last years of the artist’s life, that will define S|2’s forthcoming exhibition. In a letter to Peter Townsend in 1973, Hilton said of these late works:

“You have to be pretty witty with poster paints, if they are not to become inert; the new paintings (started in December 1972) are almost pointillist in their complexity, to overcome the natural inertia of poster paints. I have reached a stage now of simplifying. Art is essentially a breaking out, a shedding of old moulds. Every true artist is a revolutionary, but only in his own domain. He probably does not even vote.”

Hilton won first prize at the John Moores Exhibition at Liverpool in 1963 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1964 when he was awarded the UNESCO prize. His work is represented in the Tate collections and about twenty other public collections in Britain, as well as the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, the National Gallery, Ottawa, and the Museum des 20 Jahrhunderts, Vienna.

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