"The abstract artist submits himself entirely to the unknown… he is like a man swinging out into the void."
Until very recently, major oils by Roger Hilton have appeared all too rarely at auction. As a result, his has been a hidden market, one made up of very private aficionados, the majority of whom rarely own just the one Hilton, collecting him in depth, across decades and across media - paintings, drawings and his irrepressible late gouaches.
In the last eighteen months, however, four mature oils have appeared at auction, unsurprisingly setting record prices that finally come somewhere close to what they have traded for amongst the Hilton cognoscenti. The appearance of 1967, last seen on the open market over 20 years ago, is another marker in this process, as a wider global audience finally gets to see and appreciate the best of this singular British artist. Hilton is a painter whose work should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of avant-garde abstract painting of the 50s and 60s from anywhere in the world.
The artist’s recent retrospectives have been at some of the best, but well tucked-away, museums in Britain – Tate St Ives, Newlyn Art Gallery and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. But beautiful as these shows were, one can’t help but feel that only showing him in small museums, away from the capital, does Hilton a disservice. His work may be physically on the small side – the monumental Aral Sea (1958, Private Collection), at just under 2.5 metres square is the exception rather than the norm – but the force of them, the range of gestures within, the way his forms push against the works’ edge, makes them feel big, powerful, fully deserving of the grand halls of Tate Modern, or a major kunsthalle in Germany or Holland, where Hilton’s work has always had an audience.
Hilton’s output is relatively limited, for a number of reasons: he really got going as an artist late, due to a long war (during which he was interned as a P.O.W); his practise involved a lot of time in the studio, contemplating his next move, making every gesture count; his signature style is to leave the bare bones of the under-drawing visible, so paintings that weren’t working had to be abandoned rather than re-worked [“if you run into head winds, tear it up”]; and after 1965, when he had moved permanently to Cornwall, he probably spent too much time in the company of the poet W.S. Graham, with whom, as Graham himself poignantly wrote in his poem about his times carousing with Hilton, he had ‘terrible times together’.
Yet one good Hilton counts for ten by a lesser artist: you would only need, say, 25 of his best oils, along with a room of his wonderful drawings and gouaches, to make an incredible exhibition: part de Kooning, part Guston, uniquely Hilton.
For Hilton’s voice is always his own, always consistently strong. As the artists himself wrote in 1961, in an introduction to his show at Galerie Charles Lienhard in Zurich, art was ‘an instrument of truth….at heart everyone knows that beneath the everyday appearance of things are hidden truths which intuition alone can grasp. Today, when everything is put in question, man is trying again to orientate himself, to give himself a direction, to re-establish laws based on absolute truths. In crucial moments in the history of man such as we are living through there is no excuse for fooling around. I see art as an instrument of truth or nothing’ (quoted in Andrew Lambirth, Roger Hilton, Thames & Hudson 2004, p.160).
Hilton’s working day always began by drawing, working his ideas down into their most economical expression. These drawings are often figurative, albeit with the figure boiled down to the point of abstraction and it is this abstracted trace of the body that Hilton then takes with him into his painting. It is what gives it its unique quality: nominally abstract his work has a presence and weight that is distinctly corporeal. This can be seen very clearly in a work such as 1967, which can read, on the one hand, as a beautifully balance arrangement of shapes, in an exquisite tonal harmony of black, ochres, umbers and a dark burnt red, but which also pulses with physical presence. One can’t help but feel (and I use this word here deliberately) the crook of an elbow, the bend of a knee, the curve of a belly or the outline of a breast. This sense grounds Hilton’s work in our world, in the viewer’s body.
The last words of this note I leave to W.S. Graham, from a letter he wrote to Hilton in 1956 : ‘So Roger, my love-chasing abstract boy, my hero of the graphic plain, my boy alone and lost in the disguising angers and rudenesses and precipitations of catastrophe, my touchy switherer and buttery-fingered bearer of your self-esteem, artist of the astringent, the uncharming, the unkitchened, the unpotted and panned regions of the great proportions and intercoursing areas of light trying the eye, hurry up and come down soon.’