Review: Derek Hill by Bruce Arnold
Adopted son but Hill's Irish roots run deep
A beautiful book which reveals the key role Ireland played in the life of English artist Derek Hill, says Charles Lysaght
When Derek Hill, the English artist, was granted honorary citizenship in 1998, President McAleese told him that he had become "more Irish than the Irish". We think of that as a compliment, and it was certainly so intended by our kind-hearted President.
In fact, Derek Hill, like his insightful sympathetic biographer Bruce Arnold, never aspired to be Irish.
"We persisted," Arnold writes, "in retaining English social and loyalty convictions, in firmly rejecting the Irish belief that sympathetic English residents could be made 'more Irish than the Irish', yet managing to get close to the heart of the country and its people in a variety of different ways."
From the age of 38, Hill made Ireland the centre of his artistic life and appreciated what made it different. I see him as akin to Robin Flower and George Thomson, two Englishmen, who, in the early 20th Century, rescued
from historical oblivion the Irish-speaking culture of the Blaskets.
Hill's Ireland was further north along the wild Atlantic coast, in north-west Donegal and Tory Island. He was, according to Arnold, captivated by "the green depths of Irish scenery, the expansive and ever-changing skies, the light over the Atlantic and the dark shadows of cliffs and ravines around the coast".
In 1955 he acquired a former rectory near the village of Churchill on the edge of Lough Gartan, where he spent months every year. He made regular trips to Tory, where he had a hut, and painted some of his best landscapes. He counted those times as the happiest of his life.
"It gave me," he said, "a wonderful chance to get away and be myself and just paint."
He struck up friendships with some islanders and encouraged the emergence of a school of artists among them. His one false step was to buy potatoes one year to replace their lost crop. Pride was offended.
On the mainland, Hill made himself part of his local community, even attending ceili dances, and enjoyed a warm relationship with neighbours and employees. Portraits of some of them are among his best.
A food-loving bachelor of independent means, probably homosexual in orientation, his cook and housekeeper for 35 years, Gracie McDermott (nee McDaid) became the anchor of his Irish life and probably his most trusted friend. Their relationship is a touching tale.
Through his friendship with Alfred and Clementine Beit, Hill became a member of the council of the Wexford Opera Festival, which he attended regularly for 40 years and endowed generously.
Outside this Irish life, there was a lot of emptiness and disappointment. The British artistic establishment and critics dismissed Hill's landscapes as out of date because they were too representational. Their galleries refused to buy his portraits, although the best of them (nearly all of men) are truly memorable.
He prided himself on establishing a rapport with his sitters and laying bare their character and mind. His depiction of John Charles McQuaid as a cross between a Renaissance prelate and a crafty Cavanman, which hangs in St Vincent's Hospital, is a fine example.
Born into the 19th-Century industrial plutocracy, Hill spent much of his life cultivating the more ancient aristocracy, including the royal family, especially those with an artistic bent.
His friendship with one royal, whose portrait he painted, almost cost Hill his life. He was a house guest at Earl Mountbatten's Sligo abode on the August weekend when Mountbatten was blown up in his boat. Hill would almost certainly have been on the boat had he not left to go to Ballyshannon to receive a poetry prize.
A mighty traveller, Hill spent a lot of time keeping in touch with people. Sadly, few of what Arnold describes as "his wonderful letters and even better postcards" seem to have survived to assist in bringing these friendships to life.
Affable and kindly, Hill was also petulant, demanding, and rather childish. Sociability did not make up for a lack of intimacy. Arnold thinks that he was a lonely man.
This beautiful book contains handsome reproductions of Hill's paintings that will enable the reader to appreciate his life's work. It is splendid that he found fulfilment in Ireland and that his home in Donegal, which he gifted to the nation, goes on as an art gallery to provide inspiration for the people among whom he did his best work.