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On the charm offensive

Derek Hill (1916–2000), writes Bruce Arnold, was an English representational landscape and portrait painter of ‘haunting and evocative creative spirituality that is perhaps indefinable’.

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

Derek Hill Bruce Arnold

Quartet, pp.448, 35

Derek Hill (1916–2000), writes Bruce Arnold, was an English representational landscape and portrait painter of ‘haunting and evocative creative spirituality that is perhaps indefinable’.

Derek Hill (1916–2000), writes Bruce Arnold, was an English representational landscape and portrait painter of ‘haunting and evocative creative spirituality that is perhaps indefinable’. But the biographer was undeterred. As an English author of books on the arts and the chief arts critic of the Irish Independent, he was a friend of Hill’s for the last 37 years of his life.

With access to 40,000 letters and other papers in the artist’s archive and to innumerable other sources of revealing evidence, Arnold has probably come as close as possible to defining an extraordinarily busy artistic and social career. His final judgment is that in spite of some personal flaws (the most notable being self-obsession and gluttony) it was successful.

Hill was a complex character, as Brian Sewell demonstrates in his foreword:

He was very much of the old establishment, the ubiquitous and often noisy presence at the lordly dinner, ownership of his paintings a mark of privilege and proof of aristocracy. I damned him as a roving painter to nabobs, nobs and snobs. . . .

From more than 60 years of work Derek proved to be, not the dilettante so many thought him, a socialite with a singing-for-his-supper aptitude, but always a consummate professional.

Arnold, with painstaking devotion to detail, traces Derek’s development from the beginning until he became ‘a benevolent, greedy, jolly giant of genius’. He was the youngest of the three sons of Arthur Hill, a wealthy sugar trader who played cricket for England with W.G. Grace. Arthur was an ardent shot and fisherman but tolerated Derek’s preference for aesthetes rather than hearties at Marlborough, and supported him so generously that he never had to earn a living. Richard Buckle, recalling their schooldays together, wrote of Derek’s ‘delicate upswung Modigliani nose, which was much admired by older athletes’. Cecil Beaton found Derek sufficiently good-looking at the age of 17 to photograph him for The Book of Beauty (1930) and inscribed a copy for him with ‘Love from Cecil’. James Lees-Milne later declared in a diary, ‘I have come to love Derek.’

From an early age, Derek could be classified as a celibate homosexual. He usually felt most comfortable with women older than himself and with younger men, most notably, eventually, the Queen Mother and Prince Charles. He portrayed them and her corgis. She was repeatedly the guest of honour at Derek’s annual December luncheon party at Buck’s or Boodle’s. As travelling companion and tutor, he helped the Prince with his watercolours. In 1996, Derek was made a CBE, which he said was less than he had expected; he thought a CH or OM would have been more appropriate.

When it became obvious that Derek was lazy academically and would gain little from university, his father subsidised him to set forth on what Arnold summarises as a life of ‘travel, culture and fun’. Derek’s brother John, who became a fashionable interior decorator, eased his way with introductions to people with growing reputations in the arts, including Noël Coward, Oliver Messel and Stephen Tennant, and, perhaps most influentially, to the Mitfords and thence to many of their friends.

Derek travelled first to Munich. There he got to know Unity Mitford well and to love opera, but did not share her appreciation of Nazism. Indeed, he was oblivious to politics of every kind. This detachment possibly helped him to declare conscientious objection to military service during the second world war. He spent the war, whenever he could, on the farms of friends and neighbours. In Munich as a youth he enthusiastically submitted to Bauhaus compositional discipline, which, he said, provided his own works with their underlying structure.

‘Daisy Fellowes opened up Paris society for Derek,’ thus enabling him to attend numerous balls, Arnold relates, ‘some of them masked, all of them famous, some fabulously so’. At Marie-Louise Bousquet’s weekly salons, Derek ‘rubbed shoulders with artists like Derain, Cocteau and Dalì’. He designed masks for Elsa Schiaparelli, but was not tempted to join any modernist school of painting. He dismissed Picasso as ‘poisonous’ and Francis Bacon as ‘embarrassing’. Influenced by Cézanne, Courbet and Corot, Derek believed that everything avant-garde was a passing phase and that one day conventional realism would again prevail. After an exciting sojourn in Moscow, where the opera and ballet inspired him to try theatrical design, he turned to Italy and his true vocation in painting places and people. He was virtually adopted by Bernard Berenson, whom he regularly visited and corresponded with for several years.

Derek was a prolific writer of ingratiatingly affectionate letters and postcards that enabled him to hold on to a continuously widening circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom welcomed him as a guest. He produced two books of photographs of Islamic art, architecture and decoration. After he visited Turkey with Freya Stark, she complained that he was a mere tourist, whereas she was a traveller. He commented, ‘I seem to have failed her schoolmarm standards of genteel conduct.’ Of all Derek’s hosts the most severely critical was his own publisher, Naim Attallah, who wrote that Derek ‘could overflow with charm one moment and be overbearingly rude, offhand and pompous the next . . . His treatment of the household staff was positively feudal.’

It is apparent that Derek spent the consistently happiest period of his life in Ireland, particularly in County Donegal. He was befriended there by Henry P. McIlhenny, the Philadelphian multi- millionaire proprietor of Glenveagh Castle and a vast estate. The family patented the McIlhenny Gasometer and continues to produce Tabasco sauce. He persuaded Derek to live in St Columb’s, a nearby glebe house, which he was able to buy for £1,000, approximately the amount he could get in the early 1950s for a portrait.

There, with a good cook-housekeeper, he found the greatest stability of his nomadic life. He painted a prodigious number of Donegal landscapes, and occasionally ventured away to paint portraits of important and otherwise interesting people, whether they commissioned them or not.

Many of the landscapes reproduced in this book appear to be faithful to reality, except for dark muddiness suggesting he had a paint on his palette called burnt umbrage. By far the best of them are his studies of Atlantic waves crashing against the bleak, rocky coast of Tory Island, where this most gregarious of artists enjoyed periods of contemplative seclusion among the dour islanders.

The quality of the portraiture may be compared to the curate’s egg. Paintings of Robert Kee, Michael Tippett and the Duke of Kent are really pretty awful; on the other hand, there are others of fidelity, strength and charm — those of Berenson, for example, the Duchess of Abercorn and of peasants smoking pipes. Derek said that Edward Heath was his favourite model. The book is so profusely illustrated, in colour and black-and-white, that it is not too difficult to make reasonable assessments.

Although Derek Hill seems to have identified himself threnodially with the defunct Anglo–Irish Ascendancy, he and his oeuvre were so greatly admired by the contemporary Irish establishment that in 1998 he became the 11th foreigner to be awarded honorary citizenship of the Republic of Ireland. His ashes have been scattered internationally.

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