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Rose Hilton on life and her return to the art world

Rose Hilton on life and her return to the art world


As Studio 3 gallery exhibits Kentish artist, Rose Hilton’s first solo-show in her home county, Natalie Turco-Williams catches up with the artist to discuss life and her admirable return to the world of art.

83 year-old artist, Rose Hilton, is not what you would initially expect. For a classically trained artist, with a strict Christian upbringing, her life has seen more than a rebellion or two – and she’s not afraid to admit it. She is so open about her life that she even jokes ‘this is all good practice for tonight’.

As part of Studio 3 gallery’s Rose Hilton: Giving Life to Painting, Curator, Dr. Ben Thomas, arranged an open evening talk with the artist to discuss over her life and work so far. So, as part of her trip to Canterbury she graciously agreed to do the interview beforehand.

The idea of the exhibition first came about from ‘Andrew Lambirth, who did my book about my art and asked Ben if I could show here because I’m from Kent.’

Born in Tunbridge 1931, her family moved down to Bromley a few years after she was born. ‘My family were very religious, they weren’t Jehovah’s witnesses but they were the type where you would read the bible after breakfast.’

Even though they were strict, ‘it could be a lot of fun because there was seven of us who would gang up and disobey.’ To help escape everything that was happening Hilton always drew. ‘I loved drawing, so I drew as a child and then went to a girls school and decided I wanted to go into Art, but my parents said no.’

In the end ‘they relented a bit and said I could do it, if I became an Art teacher.’ To chase this imposed dream, Hilton attended Buckingham Art School, but after finishing her course she secretly did the entrance exam for the Royal College of Art. ‘I never told my parents because I thought if I don’t get in, it would be a needless worry, but in the end I did get a scholarship and then there was trouble.’

Her parents again, disapproved, but in the debate over her future, her older brother very admirably stood up for Hilton, and defeated her parents, allowing her to go.

As you would expect from attending the esteemed Royal College of Art, a place known for its respected list of innovative alumni, Hilton’s talents only intensified.

‘In art college and especially art school you had to do a lot of life drawing and a year of architectural drawing, so you could decide which way you wanted to go.’ It was only when Hilton attended the Royal College that she was first exposed to abstract forms. She recalls ‘in 1956 there was a huge American exhibition of abstract expressionism that had come over, and a lot of students, mostly the male students attended, and when they saw these big expressionism artworks it was then that pupils of the school began to do less representational and more abstract art.’

‘And because I didn’t know how to, I stuck to drawing because that was what I was good at.’

After perfecting her life drawing, Hilton eventually joined the painting school at the College and began her own experiments, dabbling in form, colour and style. During her time there, she decided to take a year out. She remembers: ‘I’d actually managed to scrap a bit of money together, I worked for a year, not living on much, and then got a travel scholarship to Rome.’ She spent her time travelling round to various museums and enjoying Italian culture. She admits: ‘I didn’t do much work’, but what student would on a free trip to Italy? ‘When I got back I took a teaching job, and at the same time I met this painter called Roger Hilton, who had separated and was living in his studio, and I never intended to hook up with him, but we ended up having an affair and then lived together, and it gradually turned into marriage.’ Hilton confesses Roger was charismatic but could be quite difficult at the same time. During her marriage Hilton gave up painting to look after their two children, whilst Roger’s career soared.

Blue Café, Rose Hilton, 2007

Blue Café, Rose Hilton, 2007

‘I didn’t mind not painting for a while but people find that very hard to understand now, because he did actually say something like there’s not room for two painters in this set up.’ It’s in this moment that Hilton seems her most vulnerable but her calm nature, makes me feel as if I could ask her anything. So I ask: ‘Was it meant as a joke or was he being serious?’

She replies: ‘Well I think if I would have insisted on being a painter, then it wouldn’t have worked out because, one thing, I had two small boys, and who would do the shopping and the cooking for them, because he wasn’t going to.’

‘He had just began to make a name for himself and started showing in major galleries, and really it was my responsibility because I knew what I was letting myself in for, and I didn’t know that it was going to be quite so difficult.’

‘We moved down to Cornwall and he exhibited there and had a retrospecitive in the Serpentine at that time, but he was 20 years older than me, and he was beginning to drink quite a lot.’  Roger never stopped working and as he became more successful, he moved to a downstairs studio in their house, and worked throughout the night.

When Roger died in 1975, ‘I was left on my own with the boys, who were 14 and 10 at the time, so after recovering a bit I decided to gradually pick up my own painting again.’ ‘In those days, men were the wage earners, I’m generalising, of course, but it wasn’t easy to exist on your own then unless you got a job, so I got a teaching job and I went back to my painting in my spare time.’

‘I painted down in Cornwall for 10 years and then I had a big show in a gallery down there. David Messum of Messum’s Gallery in London at Cork Street offered me a show in London, and I said I would.’ Since saying yes, Hilton has been regularly exhibiting there since 1989.

There’s this common perception that as you get older you get a lot wiser, and because of this, us, young people often get told that talking to people with a lot more life experience than us can help give us insight into what we should or could be doing.

Rose Hilton is certainly no exception to this. The now turned 83 year old artist has to be one of the most fascinating people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting – so to finish I ask her: ‘What advice would you give for someone wanting to get into Art?’

‘I don’t know what I’d advise, it’s hard to be successful because the competition is so great. You could be a teacher or could be a designer. I would only do it, if it’s absolutely necessary to your whole well-being.’


The Rose Hilton: Giving Life to Painting exhibition at the Studio 3 Gallery, University of Kent is open until 19 December 2015.

Find out more here.

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