Roger Hilton was acutely aware of developments in European modern art from very early on, having abandoned his studies at the Slade, at the beginning of the 1930s, to study at the Académie Ranson in Paris. Following active military service, Hilton settled in London in 1945, but maintained his connections with artist friends in Paris, returning there regularly. Having been included in several important group exhibitions in London, including Adrian Heath’s ‘Abstract, Paintings, Sculptures, Mobile’ in May 1951 and ‘17 Collectors’ at the Tate Gallery in March 1952, Hilton was given his first solo exhibition of tachisme style paintings at the Gimpel Fils Gallery in June 1952.
In early 1953, Hilton was based in London and working intermittently as a picture framer to support himself and his young family. Around this time, he was introduced to the Dutch artist Constant (Nieuwenhuys), who was staying in Britain on a three-month artist's residency. They travelled to Holland together in February 1953, where Hilton saw works by Piet Mondrian first-hand at the Stedelijk and Gemeentemuseum. Hilton was highly influenced by Constant’s ideas, and in particular with the concept of space-creating colour in modern architecture. In 1954, Hilton spoke of how his ‘new pictures have become, or aim at becoming, machines for the activation of surrounding space’. 1
Between 1952 and 1954 Hilton made a considerable number of paintings which share September 1953’s distinctive ‘Mondrianesque’ palette of blue, red, grey, black and white. However, this was not to the exclusion of other colour combinations. Alongside this painting, Hilton’s 1993 Hayward Gallery retrospective included two further oils, painted in the same month, which show him using - khaki, orange, black, cream and white (cat no.11), and black, brown, dirty-sand and orange-red (cat.12). The consistent element appears to be the combination of both black and white with colour, an identifiable strategy which is found in the majority of his paintings from here on.
In Lawrence Alloway’s influential book 'Nine Abstract Artists', published in 1955, Hilton stated ‘ I have moved away from the sort of so-called non-figurative painting where lines and colours are flying about in an illusory space; from pictures which still had space in them; from spatial pictures, in short to space-creating pictures. The effect is to be felt outside, rather than inside the picture; the picture is not to be primarily an image, but a space-creating mechanism.’ 1
Hilton’s motivating principle at this point then is a relative lack of movement and a heightened experience of the painting as object, rather than image. This 'objectness' is foregrounded by Hilton’s acknowledgement of the edge of the canvas – here in the vivid blue which streaks down the left-hand side of the double height canvas, and in the triangle of red which points to the right-hand corner.
Hilton’s flat and thick application of oil paint with a palette knife, is found in the work of other artists of the period, notably Nicolas De Staël and Serge Poliakoff. While here, Hilton favours a far more austere form of abstraction than he would come to adopt in the following decade, in fact a tactile and sensual quality is still very much in evidence. The underlying colours which at points show through the flat areas of colour, a flash of blue escaping where the black meets red for example, suggest that this painting's origins are more complex and spontaneous than simply a dry composition of interlocking shapes.
Talking to Alan Green in Studio International nearly twenty-years later, Hilton referred to a suggestion made by his patron Howard Bliss that he ‘take that picture and enlarge it’ 2. There is a sense that these early 1950s works could represent blown up fragments of something more directly observed, perhaps even from a human figure. In a painting from the previous month, August 1953, one might more readily observe a reference to a figure and despite extended trips to St Ives from 1957 onwards, it was this which was always Hilton's most explicit reference point, rather than the observed landscape.
In a letter c.1953-4 Hilton summarised the changes in his work over the previous two years: 'I have tried to reduce the picture to its simplest terms. I have relied entirely on the relationship of a few shapes. On the whole I have used unmixed primary colours and I have deliberately discarded any particular subtlety of handling or tone. I have tried, while using disparate entities, to present a unified space'. 3
1. Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue, Roger Hilton, 1993, cat no.15
2. Ibid, cat no.10
3. Ibid, cat no.13
Waddington Gallery, London
Andrew Colls Esq, London
Private Collection, UK
The Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh, Roger Hilton drawings and paintings, 15 June- 15 July 1974, A Scottish Art Council Exhibition
Hayward Gallery, London, Roger Hilton, 4 November- 6 February 1994
The Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Roger Hilton drawings and paintings, 15 June- 15 July 1974, A Scottish Art Council Exhibition, cat no.10 (Waddington Galleries, London)
Hayward Gallery, London, Roger Hilton, 4 November- 6 February 1994, cat no.13, illus colour