Articles and Features

Lost (and Found) Artist Series: Rose Hilton

Rose Hilton talks about her art, still from Messums Fine Art video about the artist. Courtesy Messums Fine Art

By Shira Wolfe

“I transferred the whole passion for religion to my painting.”

Rose Hilton

Artland’s Lost (and Found) Artist Series focuses on artists who were originally omitted from the mainstream art canon or largely invisible for most of their careers. The late Rose Hilton (1931-2019) is an important figure in British painting, having made her mark in Cornwall beyond the art circles of St Ives. Yet for most of her life, she lived in the forceful shadow of her husband, the abstract painter Roger Hilton. When they married, he made it clear there was only to be one painter in the family, and that would be him. And so Rose only picked up her paintbrushes on occasion in secret, but really began making art again after her husband died. In the last part of her life, her career took off.

Rose Hilton, Blue Still Life. © Rose Hilton, courtesy Messum's Fine Art
Rose Hilton, Blue Still Life. © Rose Hilton, courtesy Messum’s Fine Art

From Religion to Art

Rose Hilton was born in 1931 in Kent, England, into a devout Plymouth Brethren family. To the dismay of her family, she traded a future as a missionary for art, studying at Beckenham art school in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and then winning a full scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London. She left home and started living life to the fullest. In her own words: “I transferred the whole passion for religion to my painting.” She showed a great deal of promise at the Royal College of Art, winning the Life Drawing and Painting Prize and the Abbey Miner Scholarship to Rome. After Rome, she returned to London and was at the beginning of a promising art career at the age of 28 when she met Roger Hilton.

“We’d been together for a little while and one day Roger said to me, ‘It’s working, you and I, but I’m the painter in this set-up – and don’t forget it.’ That was the way it was. He was the artist. I was the wife and mother.”

Rose Hilton
Rose Hilton
Rose Hilton, Reflection. © Rose Hilton, courtesy Messum’s Fine Art

Only One Painter in the House

In 1959, Rose met Roger Hilton, a complicated man and an artist whose star was on the rise. They fell in love and had their first son together in 1961, then married in 1965, the year their second son was born. That year, they also moved from London to Cornwall, where they found inspiration in their surroundings by the sea. However, one thing became clear early on: Roger would only tolerate one painter in the house. In Rose’s words: “We’d been together for a little while and one day Roger said to me, ‘It’s working, you and I, but I’m the painter in this set-up – and don’t forget it.’ That was the way it was. He was the artist. I was the wife and mother.”
Her devotion to Roger, which she described as considering him her Jesus of the art world, led her to comply with his demands, and despite her talent and passion for painting, she put down her paintbrushes almost entirely until his death, raising their children and supporting his successful career instead. There were only a few moments during Roger’s lifetime that she painted in secret when he was out drinking or in his studio. Only when Roger was in the final stages of his illness, Rose moved her easel into his bedroom and he tutored her in colour theory, something she had never learned at the RCA.

Rose Hilton art
Rose Hilton, Trio © Rose Hilton, courtesy Messum’s Fine Art

A Return to Art

When Roger died in 1975, Rose mourned deeply for his loss and turned to her art. She could finally allow herself to work tirelessly without any constraints, and she spent about 10 years just working on her art without really showing it. Her chief subject was the female nude, but she also turned towards abstraction in the ‘90s, working with subtle, layered colour fields. Her son Bo, also an artist, has described her as an abstract painter using figuration for the forms. According to art critic Andrew Lambirth, “[her] pictures proclaim a single author. In their freshness and lyricism, in the assured design and inventive palette, above all in their edgily-balanced description and decorativeness, these pictures could only be by Rose Hilton.” For Rose, painting was always about enjoying life, and her paintings of the human form interested her because of the people that she related to so strongly, and her fascination with the figure in relation to a setting.

Rose Hilton
Rose Hilton, Life Class Painting at Botallack, 2010. © Rose Hilton, courtesy Messum’s Fine Art

Recognition and Legacy

Rose’s first solo show came in 1987 at Newlyn Art Gallery, and it was a great success. Over the next decades, she had more and more exhibitions, many at Messum’s Fine Art in London.
In 2008, she received a retrospective show at Tate St Ives and in 2009 a monograph appeared, Rose Hilton: The Beauty of Ordinary Things, written by Andrew Lambirth. She passed away on March 19th, 2019 and is remembered as one of the last artists of the glory days of Cornish painting and modern art in Cornwall.

Feature on Rose Hilton by Messum’s Fine Art

Relevant sources to learn more

Messum’s Fine Art
Tate: Colour fields. In the studio – Rose Hilton
The Guardian: Rose Hilton obituary
Apollo Magazine: ‘Wry humour and a clarity that belied her years’

For previous editions of our Lost (and Found) Artist series, see:
Tehching Hsieh
Sonia Gomes
Maria Lai