My favourite painting: Grey Gowrie

'The result was this balletic joy, as if Matisse had gone to work on a lavatory wall.'

Dancing Woman, 1963, by Roger Hilton CBE (1911–75), 60in by 50in, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Grey Gowrie says:
I bought my first Hilton in 1961, as an undergraduate, and have owned more than 40 paintings, drawings and gouaches since. Age, mortgages and so on have reduced the number, but quite a few are left. I never met Roger Hilton, but his widow, Rose, a magnificent painter herself, now in her eighties, is a friend. She told me she made the mistake of losing her temper with Roger– easy to do–while in the nude. The result was this balletic joy, as if Matisse had gone to work on a lavatory wall.

Lord Gowrie has been Minister for the Arts, Chairman of The Arts Council of England and Provost of The Royal College of Art

John McEwen comments on Dancing Woman:
Roger Hilton’s paternal heredity was immigrant Jewish. His family, cousins of the Warburg banking dynasty, anglicised their germanic Hildersheim surname in the First World War. His father was a GP, his mother a former Slade student. She noted that, at four, he observed ‘things keenly’ and drew ‘with great spirit’. He proceeded to be a star student at the Slade and spent two years in Paris, where the artist Roger Bissiere described him as among the best pupils he had ever had.

Hilton’s architect brother John wrote: ‘He combined great emotional vulnerability with a hardiness that I could nowhere near match.’ It equipped him well for art and war. He distinguished himself as a commando, was captured in the Dieppe raid and survived a two-month-long forced march before his liberation in May 1945.

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In 1959, Hilton, approaching the peak of his artistic success, took up with Rose Phipps, recently graduated from the Royal College. As his second wife, she proved a rock and bore them two sons, Fergus and Bo.

Many modern artists have aspired to the spontaneity of children’s painting before imitation and conformity sets in. This suited Hilton’s character. Painting for him was to enable ‘the spirit to breathe’. He worked spontaneously and dispensed with frames. Childhood spiritedness and keen observation were harnessed to artistic acumen.

This is the only instance of his doing two versions of a painting. The first, the Tate’s Oi Yoi Yoi, is titled after Rose’s chant as she danced. It is more elaborate, including lavish reds and royal blue.