Roger Hilton



1956 Roger Hilton (1911 − 1975)

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); [, accessed 23 July 2010]
[5] Cit. Lambirth, p.115.

  • Accession Number P365
  • Dimensions 140 X 127 CM

Glossary (4)

  • Abstraction

    To abstract means to remove, and in the art sense it means that artist has removed or withheld references to an object, landscape or figure to produce a simplified or schematic work. This method of creating art has led to many critical theories; some theorists considered this the purest form of art: art for art’s sake. Unconcerned as it is with materiality, abstraction is often considered as representing the spiritual.

  • Landscape

    Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection ( There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.

  • Oil

    A medium in which ground pigments are mixed to produce a paste or liquid that can be applied to a surface by a brush or other tool; the most common oil used by artists is linseed, this can be thinned with turpentine spirit to produce a thinner and more fluid paint. The oil dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colour is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally used on canvas.

  • Painting

    Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.

Past exhibitions


  • 2010
    • Spain, Barcelona, Fundacio Joan Miro


  • 2008
    • UK, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard


  • 2003
    • France, Toulouse, Les Abattoirs
  • 2002
    • Germany, Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum


  • 1999
    • Spain, Gran Canaria, Centro Atlantico De Arte Moderno
    • Spain, Madrid, Museo Nacional Centre De Arte Reina Sofia


  • 1994
    • UK, London, Hayward Gallery
    • UK, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery
    • UK, Birmingham, Ikon Gallery


  • 1991
    • Argentina, Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes
    • Bulgaria, Sofia, Cyril Methodius Foundation
    • Belgium, Luxembourg, Musee National D'histoire Et D'art
  • 1990
    • Ussr, Kiev, Ukrainian Museum Of Fine Art


  • 1966
    • Gibraltar, Gibraltar, John Mackintosh Hall
    • Egypt, Alexandria, El Nasr Girl's College
    • Egypt, Cairo, Galerie Des Beaux Arts
  • 1965
    • United Arab Emirates, United Arab Emirates
    • Croatia, Zagreb, House Of Artists
    • Yugoslavia, Belgrade, Masarakova Art Pavilion
    • Yugoslavia, Skopje, Skopje City Art Gallery
    • Malta, Valletta, Palazzo De La Salle


  • 1964
    • Denmark, Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum Of Modern Art
    • Canada, Edmonton Art Gallery
    • Canada, Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina
    • Canada, Winnipeg Art Gallery
    • Canada, National Gallery Of Canada
    • Canada, Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts
    • UK, London, Public Library
  • 1963
    • Canada, Art Gallery Of Ontario
    • Iceland, Reykjavik, National Museum
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