The Real Thing

The London Magazine - - ANDREW LAMBIRTH - Andrew Lam­birth

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.

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