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The Last Rose of a St.Ives Summer

Derek Guthrie and Rose Hilton

DG: So when did you first come to Cornwall?
RH: I came – um – in 1960 first on a visit.
DG: Yes:
RH With Roger. I did come without Roger in ‘59 with – er – with a friend, a painter friend called Stella Sargant but we didn’t stay for long but my first real visit was in ‘60.
DG: Why did you come in 1960?
RH: Well I had already formed a relationship with Roger
DG: Yes
RH: And he had a cottage in Nanchedra and we just -er- I just came down on holiday with him because he was separated from his wife and he was looking for somebody else to be with and that turned out to be me (laughs).
DG: He’d lived here before?
RH: He lived in London but he had a holiday house here. It all started because he was great friends with Patrick …
DG: ah
RH: Patrick Heron so he came down on Patrick’s invitation …
DG: I see
RH: … in about 1956 something like that.
DG: Okay
RH: Yes
DG: So –when you came down 1960 were you intending to stay when you visited them?
RH: Not really. He had by that time got this place in Nanchedra which he just used at holiday times it was very primitive it wasn’t on the mains – the water mains – or anything so we just used it to come down in the summer
DG: Yes
RH: And then – um – we set up in a flat in London and then he decided he wanted to move to Cornwall and in 1965 he bought this place (motions to her house)
DG: Previously Roger had lived in Paris for a while right?
RH: Yes. That was when he was … I think … from when he was 21 to when he was 30.
DG: So his artistic development essentially took place in the Parisian context?
RH: Well he wasn’t there all the time but he made prolonged visits
DG: Yes
RH: Over there …
DG: but … but he was
RH: And he went to an academy over there.
DG: So he learned a lot in Paris.
RH: He did.
DG: Yes
RH: Yes he did. He learned a lot. I think it was very good on technique, Roger
DG: Yes
RH: He knew how to use his paints so when he became an abstract artist he certainly had the techniques to go with it.
DG: The step into abstraction for him took place in Paris, right?
RH: I wouldn’t say that no. I don’t think so. I think it was when he came back and came out of the Army
DG: Yes
RH: Because he was a prisoner of war, then he -er- became friends with Terry Frost and he knew Victor Passmore so I think it was when he came back from the Army and started taking up painting again.
DG: So Passmore and Terry …
RH: Yes
DG: .. were the close friends in that evolution of him as an artist?
RH: Yes I would say so
DG: And I understand from Terry that his great school that he went to was also in a POW camp cos he was mentored the by Adrian Heath.
RH: That’s true, yes.
DG: So we have a convergence of Parisian thinking
RH: Yes
DG: With English sensibility.
RH: For Roger you mean?
DG: All of them.
RH: I think Roger was a very different artist Terry.
DG: Yes he is very different
RH: Yes. I mean Roger -er- was a draughtsman. I’m not saying the others were not but Roger never let his draughtsmanship slip. I mean every morning he … when he woke up, he would draw and draw and draw – figures everything, you know Roger would …
DG: Yes
RH: … You know when we lived down here

Figure in the sun room – Rose Hilton

DG: Yes
RH: It was to -er- just get going so hence we had when he died a whole lot of his drawings were here
DG: What artist did he really admire when he was a young artist?
RH: He he -um- admired Matisse and um um I’ve forgotten the name now there was a sculptor he liked, begins with B … I’ve forgotten his name now. A French one I think. His influences have always been French.
DG: Okay that’s fine, and in a way that is true for Patrick to.
RH: I think Patrick was a writer
DG: Yeah
RH: I mean -er- he only later became a painter.
DG: Yes. My point is they dealt with the roots of Modernism that were essentially French in terms of their molding
RH: I suppose I hadn’t really thought deeply about what Patrick’s influences are. I don’t know if they are French really what would you say?
DG: When I look at his paintings
RH: Yes
DG: I think very much of the School of Paris
RH: Ah you do, yes
DG: I do Mannissier for example and Poliakov.
RH: I mean his argument was that we, all of them as British artists, took the influence of the French artists directly, whereas a lot of people -other artists- felt that the Americans got there first and we took our influence from the American artists at the time like … Clifford Still and all those people, but, really, Patrick maintained that wasn’t so.
DG: But the American thing came – that came …
RH: Well we did have a big show. I can remember. That was before I met Roger
DG: Yes
RH: In 1956 in London. I was still at the Royal College then
DG: Yes
RH: It was a big show of American abstract artists
DG: Fine
RH: And I think that really shook up the whole thing
DG: That was the first step …
RH: Yes
DG: …of the Americans into the London scene
RH: Yes it was
DG: Fine well … so people after ‘56 were paying attention to what the Americans were doing?
RH: Yes
DG: But there was an argument about the nature of the influence, whether it was direct or indirect
RH: According to Patrick
DG: Yes … yes … but that was up to discussion
RH: Yeah
DG: Fine
RH: (smiles)
DG: I do remember well (both smile broadly)
RH: Yes you do
DG: Fine. So what do you think (pause) was the tipping point when the decline of the St Ives schools started?
RH: um
DG: When did it go off the boil?
RH: It changed –Patrick– what’s his name Ben Nicholson
DG: Yes
RH: And Barbara Hepworth were kind of the main characters weren’t they
DG: Yes
RH: And Peter Lanyon
DG: Yes
RH: And they fell out so it made a kind of weakness there -er- and I think then it was still going strong
DG: hmmm
RH: With people like Terry and Roger moving down here
DG: Yes
RH: And Patrick going on working … I think it was really when Roger died and … some of those older artists … moved away I think that’s when it that particular school … started to die out and apparently there are young artists in Porthmeor studios now, younger artists but it hasn’t quite got the same reputation has it?
DG: No I remember what I think was a crucial event I’ve forgotten the date but will find it (1962) BBC put out a movie and it was called Pop Goes the Easel
RH: (slight laugh) That’s a good one isn’t it?
DG: There was a response to the emerging pop art scene
RH: Yes
DG: And to me that was the date when you could say in terms of fashion, I’m not talking in terms of quality …
RH: Yes
DG: … was the beginning of the end because your abstraction / landscape was no longer a basic understanding because commercial art/urban landscape got to be the new world that the art world was into.
RH: Yes yes. People like, you mean, Peter Blake – that whole movement?
DG: That whole movement
RH: Yes
DG: Peter was … Peter was an individual he was an eccentric until the Royal College.
RH: I was in the same year as Peter Blake
DG: Were you really?
RH: At the Royal College, yes.
DG: But …
RH: He wasn’t known then
DG: no no no he was an eccentric … artist but Lawrence Holloway

Figure
Rose Hilton

RH: Yes
DG:… found the words to legitimise pop art.
RH: Did he? Yes
DG: He was the advocate for …
RH: I see well he um well er so Roger came in for an earlier …
DG: thats right I’m talking …
RH: … with Lawrence Holloway
DG: I’m talking about the waves that came in with the new ebb tide..
RH: He’d moved over to America by then
DG: Yes I know we had he’d gone
RH: Yes
DG: He got fed up with London
RH: Yes
DG: He thought London was very prejudiced against him
RH: I see so he was still able to support pop art from America.
DG: Oh yes. Oh yes. Talk to me about the present scene what do you think of it?
RH: Who?
DG: The present scene
RH: The present scene … well it’s probably not happening in St Ives
DG: No it can’t
RH: No, it’s probably the East End of London – well where the young artists are making out
DG: Yes
RH: You knows it’s Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst and those people
DG: Yes
RH: So … it’s moved from here
DG: Yes
RH: People still come here because of the light and there’s lovely studios but I don’t think there’s a huge respect for St Ives artists now.
DG: Let me ask you a more pointed question.
RH: Yes
DG: What do you think of the scene in Cornwall at the moment?
RH: … There’s not many artists that I can really … you see, besides, I’m now in my mid-80s and so I rather lost touch I mean of that generation of younger artists. I hardly ever go there. Since William Barnes Graham died
DG: Yes.
RH: And all those people… I haven’t really kept up with what’s going on over there
DG: Well whether you kept up or not are there any out there that you have any real hope for interest in – or you really respect?
RH: I’m still partly figurative artist and that’s what I admire
DG: Yes
RH: That’s what I … I admire and what I like even, you know, living alongside Roger. He used to say I don’t know why you still like doing that old-fashioned art
DG: Yeah. I know there is always a great deal of prejudice for what the other guy does but is there anybody in Cornwall at the moment that you think is doing interesting work figurative, abstract, or not – it doesn’t matter
RH: um (thinking) but this is a bit unfair really to say I like Naomi Frears
DG: Okay
RH: I mean to pick up people… yes I do admire what she’s doing
DG: okay
RH: I’m not sure what men artists there are now. Do you know any?
DG: Who?
RH: Do you know what’s going on in the St Ives scene?
DG: I know a little bit
RH: Yes
DG: But to me the whole thing is kind of frozen.
RH: Yes you go to the Penwith you don’t really see … I quite like Rodney Walker’s work
DG: Okay
RH: Yes and … but really I don’t get much from those Penwith shows
DG: I think the Penwith has become totally banal to be honest
RH: Yes and the poor old Newlyn Art Gallery has been taken over by two people who won’t let us have shows there anyway you know?
DG: Yes well that issue is not resolved why the Newlyn Society was kicked out …
RH: Yes
DG: By the current administration of the Newlyn Orion Gallery but I hear …
RH: But why?
DG: Because (pause)
RH: I’d love to know
DG: People are mean, people want centre stage and there is a lust for power
RH: Yes
DG: It’s that simple
RH: Yes
DG: But the legal issues may not be settled, as I hear on the grapevine
RH: Good, good I’m glad
DG: Yes
RH: Because we’d like our gallery back to show in instead of having, I mean the Newlyn Society of artists now have to show in Tremenheere …anywhere they can get
DG: I know, well
RH: Nobody goes in to visit the Newlyn Art Gallery anyway
DG: Look they could have been left with one show a year, that wouldn’t have harmed anybody
RH: No
DG: But it’s just mean and vindictive
RH: Yes
DG: To chuck them totally out
RH: Yes
DG: They could have shared the space
RH: Do you ever go in and see what’s going on there?
DG: Well I go in because …
RH: You live there?
DG: Because I have to.
RH: Because you’re on the committee?
DG: No no no no
RH: What?
DG: I’m not on the committee in Newlyn
RH: Why do you have to?
DG: Because I run a magazine.
RH: Oh yes (smiles)
DG: And I need to know what’s going on (they both laugh) I want to believe in artists. I like art
RH: I see
DG: But the scene is … I don’t think the presence of the Tate has helped much
RH: Well it’s been shut for ages hasn’t it?
DG: Yes but it’s mind is shut as well as the building is shut
RH: Yes
DG: The whole things got too political
RH: I agree there’s not really much encouragement for working artists
DG: No there isn’t.

 

We would like to thank Rose for her hospitality and the comfort of her home where this interview was recorded.

Born in Kent, Rose Hilton attended Beckenham Art School before going on to the Royal College of Art where she won the Life Drawing and Painting Prize as well as the Abbey Minor Scholarship to Rome.

Volume 31 number 5 May /June 2017 pp 22-26

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2 comments

  1. Simon Bayliss

    Dear Derek,

    We met briefly outside Tate St Ives during Ken Turner’s performance on Saturday.

    I’m writing because I’m saddened that you feel that the St Ives art scene is frozen and wanted to give you some examples of artist-led activity happening at Porthmeor Studios, which is where I’m based. In the past month Porthmeor has hosted ‘MONO’, an evening of 16 short artist films curated by Rafal Zajko; ‘Flexing Around’ a performance by Ilker Cinarel featuring opera singer Jesse James Giuliani; ‘Can you see being friends with an object for years?’ showing textile and design work of Sarah Johnson, Joe Townshend, oB wear and a woven plane; ‘Hex on the Beach’, an exhibition by artists from Anchor and Trewarveneth Studios in Newlyn; an exhibition by Katie Schwab & the Chy an Creet artists & makers, and a public talk with artist Danny Fox. They were all great events and I hope you can join in the future. There is a Facebook page which keeps up-to-date with information about what’s on here: https://www.facebook.com/PorthmeorStudios/

    Kind regards
    Simon Bayliss

    • Daniel Nanavati

      It is so good of you to follow up on our conversation. we would be delighted to attend events as in the past our presence has fuelled antagonism and censorship from many in St Ives. Please feel free to invite us to an event you think we should be covering. If, in the wider view, you feel you want to tell us about how good things are in St Ives to counter balance the views of others, I would be happy for you to write 600 words on your experiences but would ask you do not promote friends in your article.

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