Lot 26
  • 26

Roger Hilton

60,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Roger Hilton
  • December 1960
  • signed, titled and inscribed on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 132 by 139cm.; 52 by 54¾in.


Galleria Levi, Milan
Galleria AAM, Rome, where acquired by the present owner in the 1960s


Zürich, Galerie Charles Lienhard, Roger Hilton, June 1961, cat. no.2, illustrated on the front cover;
Venice, Centro Internazionale della Arti e del Costume, Mostra, Art e Contemplaziano, July - October 1961 (details untraced).


Original canvas, there are faint stretcher bar marks visible to the edges, and a further horizontal mark to left hand side of the central belt. There is a light puncture mark to the centre of the extreme right hand edge, visible upon close inspection. There are some old instances of minor loss to the white pigment in the upper left of the composition, with a few tiny further traces visible elsewhere upon close inspection. There is some cracquelure to the white pigment at the left hand side of the composition, and some further, minor reticulation to the black pigment in the far left. There is further minor surface dirt and studio detritus, but this excepting the work appears in good overall condition. Ultraviolet light reveals a few, light scattered traces of fluorescence and retouching to one or two of the thicker areas of applied impasto in the upper left. Housed in a thin strip frame. Please contact the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

We are grateful to Timothy Bond for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.

December 1960 was painted in the midst of an incredible burst of creativity, during which Roger Hilton established himself as one of the most exciting painters working both in Britain and in Europe.

It was between 1956 and 1964 that Hilton developed his unique style that blended control with wild abandon, measure with intuition. He expanded his palette, from the works of the early 50s that are dominated by white and black, to include a range of dirty, beautiful colours – ochres, blue-greys, blood reds and rich yellows – that have depth and strength, but also a certain restraint, which makes the work quietly powerful. His surfaces, too, become more complex, full of differing weights of mark-making, from heavy impasto to the lightly scratched. Drawing becomes an essential element to painting, charcoal lines interleaving the blocks of colour, so there is a play on the relative values within the work. And the forms within his paintings become placed with a care that belies their seemingly spontaneous nature: they are ‘hung’ deliberately on the surface, acutely aware of the painting’s physical parameter; they press against each other and – importantly – the edges of the canvas. It is the way Hilton uses the edges that then gives the forms within a corporeality that is perhaps his greatest discovery.

All of these elements are here, in December 1960, which at five feet square is one of Hilton’s larger works.  It was first shown in his June 1961 exhibition at Galerie Charles Lienhard in Zurich, at the time a very important conduit for British abstract painters in reaching an appreciative European audience, including the Italian private collector who has owned this painting for the last 50 years. The introduction to the Lienhard catalogue was written by the art historian and curator Alan Bowness, a key supporter of Hilton, Heron, Lanyon and Wynter. With a characteristic generosity, Bowness, having made it clear how highly he rated Hilton in an international context, kept his essay relatively short, instead giving the floor to the artist’s own statements. Hilton was never a prolific painter, with many hours spent in the studio staring at his canvasses, working out the next move, and this can be seen in his writing, in which his natural wit and humour is constantly shot-through with a deadly seriousness.

Under a heading ‘Art as an Instrument of Truth’, Hilton writes:  ‘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). Under another heading – ‘Painting is Feeling’, Hilton continues: ‘One must express oneself. There are situations, states of mind, moods etc., which call for some artistic expression; because one knows that only some form of art is capable of going beyond them to give an intuitive contact with a superior set of truths. The direct imitation of life or nature cannot express the complex human situation which exists for us all today’ (ibid. p.163).

Hilton’s abstraction is not something that plays on the mind: it is intended to provoke a physical reaction. In paintings such as December 1960, we see an extension of our own bodies, of our traces on the surface of the world. As Hilton says: ‘The artist’s job is to arrange a meeting between paint and an idea; in doing so, particulars will be transfigured into universals' (ibid. p.162).