Written by Patrick Duffy | September 2023
Rose Hilton Free to Paint
You have to give a lot to painting.
It's not something you can just dash off.
You have to take risks - risk ruining it.
You have to know when to stop.
In the years since her death there has been a considerable and proper resurgence and interest in the art and life of Rose Hilton, an artist whose resolute belief in painting would be her strength and stay throughout her life. That art and life to her were one and the same to Rose is remarkably fitting, as it is hard to imagine a lifetime more extraordinary from someone with such ordinary beginnings. The middle child of seven siblings, Rose Phipps experienced an intensely religious upbringing under her devout Plymouth Brethren parents. Growing up in a household of study and prayer caused a young Rose to seek out a life away from the pious stringency of the family home, and after much convincing of her parents she was entered into Beckenham Art School, before gaining a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Needless to say, she never looked back. This in itself belies her indomitable spirit and the foundation of her greatest strength which led her through the trials of the life ahead of her. In the early 1950s, the focus of figurative study at the Royal College had remained close to its pre-war values, which suited Rose perfectly and she flourished as a student and later as a teacher at the college. It would be here, in 1959, where she would meet and fall in love with her future husband, the much lauded, avant-garde artist, Roger Hilton.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to write about Rose and not mention Roger. As numerous biographies and accounts of her life demonstrate, Rose's life had three distinct stages: her life before Roger, her life with Roger and her life after Roger. It is more unfortunate that for those who don't know of her, their first introduction to Rose's life is usually within this context, and that her identity as an artist was merely framed by her complicated married life until Roger's death in 1975. That there was only room for one artist in the relationship did not bother her due to her intense loyalty to her husband and family, and therefore, during this time - this hiatus from painting - she devoted herself to domestic life and to raising their two children, Bo and Fergus, and supporting her husband in any way that she could.
To those who knew her, Rose was also a continuous source of warmth, kindness, joy and entertainment. Above all she was praised for her generosity and her good will, her desire moreover, to help those close to her and to provide for those she loved. As such, her legacy exists in the dichotomy between Rose the individual/the artist and Rose the mother/the wife. But to say that she sacrificed one role for another, is to misunderstand her life as an artist. Whether she was painting in private or tending to the household, or visiting friends, or traveling with her family, she had a passion for learning about her craft and understanding the beauty of everyday life. This she maintained constantly from the day she left the Royal College to when she could finally take up the brush again and resume her practice.
Rose lived and cultivated a creative life which was open to all. Her house at Botallack, West Cornwall was no exception to this rule and is remembered well by all who knew her. At one time it was three nineteenth century crofters' cottages which they had merged into one abode. Situated high above the cliff in Botallack, an ancient mining area with very few inhabitants, the house was the perfect retreat for her family when they moved there in 1965 and it remained her home for the rest of her life. It would be here that Rose raised her children, said goodbye to her husband and turned once again to painting and resume her career to become one of Britain's most recognisable artists.
By all accounts, a visit to Botallack was not an easy one to forget. Rose's long-time friend and co-grandmother to her grandchildren, Sally Fleetwood, recalled the scene that would greet you as 'wonderful messy beauty'. 'It was often a chaotic house, there were always people coming and going, some you knew, others you didn't, and there are always parties. I'm sure there wasn't a person in West Penwith who didn't know Rose somehow.' Coming to Botallack was a chance to relax and unwind. What was a family home had, by the 1990s, become an extension of Rose's creative practice as her priorities had shifted away from housework and back to painting, but at its heart the house was warm, inviting and alive with the spirit of friendship that pervaded around Rose. Thanks to her cosmopolitan life in London in the 60s, she developed many important and enduring friendships with artists working in Cornwall including John Wells, Bryan Wynter and later, the painter John Miller whom she would often visit at his house at Sancreed with the 'Cornish Fauvist' Tim Newman (Conversation in Poolroom (Sancreed)). They painted together, holidayed together, and in some cases shared studios with each other in the winter months in Newlyn or St Ives.
Close friends offered Rose another ripe and raw material. Whilst she often paid models, she always preferred to paint the people that she knew, and everyone was a potential candidate. 'Ours was a strange relationship for an artist and model, in that we both shared grandchildren,' Sally recalls, having modelled for her on numerous occasions. 'I had got to know Rose well in the twenty or so years since our children had met each other, so we were less like an artist and model and more like two grannies just chatting away. But a Rose model wasn't about what you looked like, the individual, but the shape the person could make. The contours of the model are what attracted her primarily, and how she could incorporate them into the overall composition.' Rose's progression from almost exclusively using female nudes to stripping the figure of any sexuality or femininity is more explicit in her late works, in which she effectively establishes her more abstract, triadic practice of incorporating the figure, colour and design into one image (See Figures and Plants, 2014 for instance).
THE CONSERVATORY PICTURES
Modelling, much like parties and dinners, happened in the conservatory which acted like the beating heart of the house. 'The conservatory was where we spent most of our time. Rose had built it as a place to work to replace a much smaller porch that she had used, other than the studio room upstairs which was much darker and not as suitable a place for life drawing and painting. It was a very cosy space that Rose had furnished with a sofa and soft furnishings, many draped in beautifully patterned textiles and filled with potted plants and various wild botanics. A vine grew along the ceiling, having found its way through a gap in the window, and would produce little black grapes in the summer.' The conservatory was much more than just a studio but a living space, a place to entertain, to share meals at Rose's large dining table and sit late into the night trading stories and reminiscing.
It was in this sanctuary that Rose made the setting for her most experimental works. The tranquillity of the space reflected the luminous interiors of Bonnard, to whom she owed a great debt for her understanding of how to capture light within the compositional flow of multiple elements within a canvas. According to her friend and biographer, Ian Collins, 'Rose had always loved the intimacy and accessibility of Bonnard's brilliantly lit domestic interiors... particularly the glowing and jewel-like effects that can be achieved through layers of under-painting, a technique she has always loved.' Her pursuit to translate this into her own vocabulary meant that increasingly her paintings became more of a mediation on colour than narrative, and ultimately her paintings took on a more abstract nature. Model Escapes to Take a Dip, Newlyn Studio, 2012 in particular stands out as a painting which utilises a limited palette. To Rose, it also worked to contrast the freedom of the figure drawing with the detailed patterning of the model's surroundings.
As an extension of classical observation, the human figure remained primary to her working method, and it is particularly noticeable in her preparatory drawings of her models in the studio. She maintained an extensive collection of charcoal, pencil and pastel studio studies at Botallack which demonstrate her constant pursuit to familiarise herself with her subject. The more she became acquainted with the human form, the more she allowed herself to experiment with paint, and explore the boundaries of defining space through colour and light which is why, more often than not, she preferred to use characters she understood so she can utilise a particular palette accordingly. As such, her life drawings acted as an extension of her practice as a painter, becoming an encyclopaedia of visual references to which she could constantly refer back to. In them, we see elements of Matisse's organic motifs, Ingres' classical nudes and the mark-making of Bonnard, which combine through her lightness of touch and economy of line, to form some of her most relaxed and sensual images.
From these studies, Rose recomposed the world around her, as Elizabeth Knowles once wrote, 'like an accomplished novelist', rewriting them into a new, fictional realities. This is perhaps why her models remain faceless in her paintings. They are not quite portraits of people but representations of living elements which maintain a minor role within the greater context of the painting. This is one of Rose's greatest strengths and her ability to override the natural human desire to derive recognisable facial elements and stimuli is of great significance. Fundamentally, the human figure is the central focus for a work of art, as it possesses a great power to orientate our visual attention, regardless of background or age. Facial recognition is fundamental in normal human interaction, particularly in cases where the subject is static and it also remains a strong point of focus even in objects in motion, when one's attention is distributed to other body parts. The psychology of a picture is therefore often conditional on our reading of these elements and can be disconcerting in their absence. In Rose's paintings, she retains a familiarity in the physicality of figures which places us at ease with the gentle harmony of her palette.
What is interesting to consider is how much Rose's legacy embodies the delayed appreciation of female modern artists who have only in the last decade come to be regarded with as much solemnity as their male counterparts. Thankfully, Rose was able to enjoy the admiration given to her work during her lifetime and, not only that, but she was also able to prosper. The paintings, pastels and drawings in this exhibition are a testament to this growth. Produced in the last twenty five years of Rose's life, they not only demonstrate how she developed her working style towards more lyrical abstraction whilst painting there, but they are also a record of the life she led and the relationships she maintained in her home. As in the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Person from Porlock, we are often left to wonder what Rose's oeuvre would have looked like had she not taken an unexpected hiatus in painting, but we can be happy in the knowledge that the works we see before us today are, to paraphrase Sandra Blow, at their best - masterpieces.
I'd like to thank Sally Fleetwood for sharing her memories on her dear friend, and for providing her intimate reflections of her sessions at Botallack as one of Rose's models.
Patrick Duffy - Archivist for Messum's
'Rose Hilton 2023' will be on view at Messum's St James's until 27 October 2023. View the exhibition's artworks and catalogue here.