Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Creative Late Bloomer Just Keeps Plodding On

     I'll bet there are a lot of women -- especially those now in their seventies, eighties and nineties -- who will relate to the London Guardian's story of Rose Hilton who has an art show at London's Messum's Gallery, on view now until April 16.

      At first glance, Rose Hilton would appear to be a classic Late Starter: Someone who always wanted to create but was held back by family or work obligations.

Rose Hilton. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Guardian
    Or in her case, held back by an overbearing husband who already was a celebrated artist.

    "I'm the painter in this set-up," Roger Hilton told Rose when they were married in the Sixties.

     This, despite the fact that Rose had attended the Royal College of Art and graduated with honors, despite the fact that she had won life drawing and painting prizes and a scholarship to Rome, despite the fact that she had taught at England's Sidcup Art College (where one of her students was Rolling Stone Keith Richards), despite the fact that she had had her work included at a gallery show in London. Now married to a famous artist, Rose's job became raising the Hiltons' two sons, Bo and Fergus, and putting up with Roger.

      An alcoholic who was at times downright mean (he would read her diary entries and leave nasty comments, such as "balls" and "fucking lie"), Roger Hilton was a handful, but he also was a brilliant painter. And he eventually did come around. In the last years of their stormy marriage when Rose tentatively started painting again, he even offered her some constructive criticism. In turn, Rose took care of her husband when he fell desperately sick.

     But wait. Roger died in 1975. Rose was only 43 years old. She no longer had the excuse of a husband holding her back. Her children, who both became artists themselves, were supportive. Why did it take her decades to finally earn a living from her art work? 

"Something to Keep the Balance," by Andrew Lambirth
      "I suppose I have been a slow developer," she told a Western Morning News interviewer two years ago when, at 78, she had a solo exhibition at the Messum (her first there was in 1991 when she was 60),

      Okay, now I'm thinking Rose Hilton is more accurately categorized, in my lexicon of late bloomers, as a Plodder: an artist who needed time to hone her skills to get good.

     Yes, her marriage interrupted her art career. For nearly ten years, she was unable to paint full time. But even those years were not entirely lost ones for her development as an artist. While with Roger, she took notes when he made comments about his art and observed his process to gain insight into her own. Then for three decades after his death, she worked diligently to find her own creative voice. Thirty-three years after Roger's death, she had a retrospective at the Tate St. Ives.  

     We can't always blame outside forces for our inability to create -- or on our lack of creative success. Sometimes the person holding us back the most is ourselves. Rose has painted now for more than 50 years, intermittently at times, more ferociously at others.  But most importantly, she's kept at it, despite the interruptions, despite her doubts. And she has learned well to use the time when she is unable to create.

    A painting in Rose's current exhibit at the Messum's is a great illustration of both her perseverance and constant openness to inspiration. Depicting the time when she was waiting hand and foot on her bedridden husband, it's called "Taking Things to Roger." 

   In 2009, Andrew Lambirth published a book about Rose Hilton; "Something to Keep The Balance" is about Rose's life, her loves (including Roger) and her struggle to find her own artistic identity. The "something" of the title is art. As Rose puts it, "It's all about how I carried on painting."

   I'm reminded of that saying by Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on. I go on." It's all about plodding on.



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