Not so long ago, I reviewed a retrospective account of Roger Hilton’s wife, Rose. The significance of this is that her life informs our opinion of her husband’s work. He was twenty years her senior and a dominant, perhaps domineering, figure who seems to have wanted more of a personal assistant, perhaps even a reflector of his own greatness, and forbade his talented bride from pursuing her own career. Knowing this, it is hard not to view Roger’s drawings of the human form – which form the bulk of what is included here – as belittling and maybe even abusive. There is no sense of beauty or respect.
What there is, however, is a strong sense of line and of form. Get past the initially dismissive quality of the drawings and there is a clear indication that their maker understands the techniques and processes of drawing as well as the use of space on paper. Hilton’s biographies tend to gloss over his teaching career, but he was at Central St Martins in the late 1950s and it becomes easy to imagine him as a charismatic instructor – which, indeed, could be how he acquired a bride twenty years younger than himself.
This is not, however, a book about psychology, interesting though that is, but about the life and work, particularly the drawings, of an important member of the St Ives School whose reputation was international. Influenced by Matisse, Picasso and Klee, Hilton was a master of the balance between abstraction and figurative drawing. Adrian Lewis also looks at how Hilton’s personal life and sexual desire became integrated in his visual expression (something hinted at above). The book is comprehensive and analytical and does much to enhance the reputation of Hilton as a draughtsman. It is perhaps a shame that some of the illustrations appear to have been reproduced from less than perfect transparencies, but sometimes you have to go with what’s available and the results are by no means unacceptable, and better included than not.
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