Saturday 24 February 2018

Portrait of a great painter

This lavishly illustrated book will appeal to anyone interested in art, Ireland, eccentricity and the world at large, writes Brian LynchThe portrait of Erskine Childerson this page is a good example of Derek Hill's uniquely contrary talent. Officialdom didn't like it, but in its revelation of Childers's curiously puckish character -- this buttoned-up son of a martyr for old Ireland is plainly delighted to be getting a go on a tractor trailer -- it is probably the best portrait we have of an Irish president.

Hill could do official too. His full-length portrait of John Charles McQuaid, which used to hang in the hallway of St Vincent's Hospital, shows the Archbishop of Dublin at the height of his dignified, severe and decidedly camp power. This is the church militant in a very nice purple dress.

Hill was also a wonderful painter of children, in part because he was himself what used to be known as 'a born boy'. St Columb's, the beautiful house he left to the nation -- a must-see for any visitor to Donegal -- is decorated with boyish exuberance: one room is wallpapered with Turkish newspapers. And the cabin he lived in on the edge of a cliff on Tory Island (another must-see) is a real Huckleberry Finn hideout.

How Hill, who was born in 1906 and died in 2000, came to be an honorary Irishman is historically, socially and culturally interesting. The why of it is a psychological puzzle -- he was a personality as complex and comic as any character in English fiction.

English is the word. Hill's father, when he wasn't making a tidy fortune from trade, played cricket for England. The odd upperclass Englishness of the Hill family is exemplified by the advice Derek's brother gave him when he went to public school: "If you must masturbate, don't do it alone; it's so selfish."

Whether Derek took the advice is not disclosed in Bruce Arnold's fascinating, expansive but discreet biography Derek Hill. Although there is no record in the book of Hill ever having any kind of physical relationship, he was undoubtedly homosexual. And he sometimes played the stereotypical queen: fussy, bossy, finicky, demanding, petulant, explosively temperamental. What he said of a suburban clergyman's house he could have said of himself: "Wisteria without and hysteria within."

He was, though, more interested in his address book than undressing. Hill had hundreds of famous, well-born or wealthy friends. Prince Charles (who once told a friend: "Do give him my love.") learned how to paint from him. The Queen Mother was a mate. He did portraits of prime ministers, aristocrats (why he painted Lady Emma Cavendish -- her mother was one of the Mitfords -- topless is a mystery), film stars, champion sportsmen, adventurous business people (including a dynamic portrait shown on page 18 of the young Sir Anthony O'Reilly) and Nobel laureates (Seamus Heaney wrote a good poem about him). Hill was a sucker for greatness, inherited or achieved, and for the rich.

His closest friend in Ireland, the Irish-American art collector Henry McIlhenny, was certainly loaded. He, too, left his Donegal house to the nation, but Glenveagh is a massive, one might say monstrous, neo-Gothic castle and there are 40,000 acres of national park to go with it.

Hill and Henry's relationship, like that of two friendly elephants, was often noisy and perilous to those standing nearby.

Hill was closely attached to Tory Island: so much so that when the potato crop failed there, he sent 10 tons of the tuber as a gift to the islanders. Some were grateful. Others got uppity at being looked down on. Even the local Catholic bishop had his say: he didn't like this "blow-in". In turn the preposterous prelate's intervention infuriated the locals: "He never went without spuds, and what was it to him anyway?"

Hill was never just a social climber, largely because he was such a hard worker -- a habit he learned from his father, who woke him every morning by banging on the wall and shouting, "Get up, maggot!" Above all else, he was a serious artist, deeply committed to the art of the past.

This was his problem: he painted like a person from the 19th Century, and at a time when Picasso and Francis Bacon ruled the roost, his work seemed irredeemably old-fashioned. A Left-wing admirer, the Booker prize winner John Berger, a critic who all art- history students still have to study, agreed to write the catalogue note for an important exhibition in London, but then, faced with a choice between admiration and his modernist principles, ditched Derek. Hill never got over it.

The Right wing looked down on him too. Brian Sewell, the superbly outrageous art critic of the London Evening Standard, for many years thought of Hill as "a roving painter to nabobs, nobs and snobs". But in 1998, when he saw the Dublin retrospective, he changed his mind.

Annoyed by an official "loudly and meaninglessly" explaining the pictures to President Mary Robinson, Sewell marched over, seized her by the elbow and said, "Let me take you away from all this nonsense." Mary followed like a little lamb and Sewell "showed her the meaning of a brushstroke". It was, he said, "a simple act of homage to Derek".

As a figure in the cultural history of these islands Hill is big and is bound to get bigger, deservedly so. This lavishly illustrated book will interest anyone interested in art, Ireland, eccentricity, and the world at large.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and art critic

Irish Independent

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