The Real Thing
Derek Hill: A Centenary Exhibition, The Redfern Gallery, London, 9 – 16 May 2016
In 1961 Bryan Robertson, the innovative and dynamic director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, mounted a retrospective exhibition of the work of Derek Hill. Robertson was mid-way through his remarkable tenure at the along with other such international modernists as Mondrian, Malevich and and had presented museum shows of Turner, Stubbs, John Martin, Gillray and Rowlandson. Nor did he neglect mid-career contemporary painters: 2000) was one of the contemporaries, but not an obvious choice. Robertson followed his own taste and supported those he believed in. The Whitechapel exhibition put Hill on the map. It was only afterwards that he came to be really recognised and celebrated as a portrait painter.
Grey Gowrie is perhaps Hill’s staunchest supporter. He has written the main monograph on the artist, and this spring arranged a centenary loan exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London’s Cork Street. The accompanying catalogue reprinted Gowrie’s Appraisal of Hill from the 1987 monograph and illustrated a handful of works. The exhibition featured 40 pictures, which included portraits as well as landscapes. Redfern’s beautifully top-lit central gallery contained the best works, most impressive of which more substantial Harvesting at St Columb’s (c.1960), and the compressed poetry of Ben Bulben from Classiebawn (c.1968). If Hill is better known as a society portrait painter, his most effective pictures are in fact informal
Irish landscapes, mostly painted on or from Tory Island, off the north-west coast of Donegal. In fact, Gowrie goes as far as to state that Hill was ‘the
Hill clearly had a gift for friendship and knew everybody, from Establish haute bohème, and one of the pleasures of the long interview in Gowrie’s book is discovering unexpected connections and probably not so surprising as his knowing Zoran Music and Morandi, or his support for the paintings of John Bratby. Hill was devoted to Bernard - enson] thought very highly of John Berger as a critic: not the attacks on the bourgeoisie but as the only person in Europe who looked at paintings as if they were individuals, people’.
refuse commissions and only paint those for whom he felt a certain sympathy. Grey Gowrie met him as a teenager when they were neighbours in Donegal, and he writes of their friendship: ‘More than anyone he helped traditional picture-making with the occasional nod to Modernism, and the Berenson and Kenneth Clark admired his early paintings of olive pruners, done whilst staying on Berenson’s estate in Tuscany. Hill was widely His early training as a theatre designer in Munich (really a false start) led to a knowledge of Bauhaus disciplines, and there was usually an underly Charles as an attempt at ‘a Hogarth-type drawing in oils’, while his studies of monks on Mount Athos recall Daumier. His wonderfully wicked demicaricature of his old friend John Craxton is a masterpiece of characterisation. In the 1950s he was art director of the British School in Rome for Bratby and Michael Andrews, Joe Tilson and Tony Fry.
Gowrie writes in his Appraisal:
satisfy one criterion in order to deserve the name. They must need to be able to identify something original, with its own stylistic personality, and recognise something general. The the real thing.’ Even an uncompromising abstract painting, unconnected with real life as we perceive it, needs a different kind of reality, an object-life of its own.
Just such a group of paintings — a number of them uncompromisingly abstract — comprised the inaugural show at the Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge (February - May 2016). This was entitled ‘Generation - ebrated art world alumnus, Sir Alan Bowness.
Bowness (born 1928), who was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1980 to 1988, developed an interest in contemporary British art in the postwar some of the most perceptive and illuminating writing about such artists from the artists, but he also bought work from dealers and at auction. The exhibition, of just seventeen pictures, was beautifully installed and lit at the Heong Gallery, and perfectly captured a moment in the art world with - tion, it is usefully commemorated in a fully-illustrated catalogue which contains an essay by Heong curator Rachel Rose Smith, a heartfelt tribute to Bowness by Duncan Robinson and a fascinating memoir by Bowness himself. Quite a contrast to Derek Hill, but he too was a collector, and would have understood and appreciated Bowness’s desire to be surrounded by the art that inspired and intrigued him.