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A Tribute to Derek Hill (LI 1930-33) by Edward Twohig

The tribute to artist Derek Hill (LI 1930-33) delivered by presenter/producer John Bowman on RTE Radio 1 on Bowman: Sunday broadcast on 19th July at 8.30am propelled me to write the below and share with you. This radio programme was fortified by reading ‘Derek Hill, An Appreciation’ by the Earl of Gowrie, autographed by Derek Hill and inscribed ‘for Marlborough and the Old Bath Road, January 19th ‘95.’ in the Art School library.

John Bowman’s tribute marked the 20th anniversary of the death of this singular portrait and landscape painter and mentioned this Marlburian’s gift to Ireland; Glebe House, outside Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, which Hill had owned since 1954, along with an Art collection including works by Picasso, Hokusai, Degas, Georges Braque, Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore, John Craxton, Evie Hone and Jack Butler Yeats.

Within Bowman’s tribute Pat Murphy of the Irish Arts Council mentioned Hill as a ‘classical painter’ while James White (who was Director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1964-1980) described Hill as an ‘extraordinary all-round artist’. Hill’s 70th birthday Retrospective Exhibition was held at the Royal Hospital Kilmanham, Dublin, in 1986. The seminal art historian, Bruce Arnold, published a substantial book on Hill in 2010.

Derek Hill was born in 1916 and was taught Art by Christopher Hughes between 1930 and 1933. In 1936 he worked as a theatre designer in Germany and Russia and later as a historian. In Paris, just before the outbreak of the Second Word War, Hill decided to devote his skill and energies on becoming a portrait painter.

Hill’s art is based on a fluent, versatile technique, and though the list of his high society patrons is impressive, I believe his landscapes, especially of his beloved Donegal and Tory Island may well be his lasting testament.

Hill began to enjoy increased success as a portrait painter from the 1960’s; his subjects including notable composers, poets, musicians, politicians and statesmen, such fellow Marlburian Sir John Betjeman, Erskine Childers (4th President of Ireland), broadcaster Gay Byrne, Jerusalem mayor Teddie Kollek and HRH Charles, Prince of Wales. Hill was also an astute and avid art collector and traveller, with a wide range of friends such as Bryan Guinness and Isaiah Berlin. Greta Garbo visited Hill in the 1970’s, a visit which formed inspiration for Frank McGuinness’ 2010 play Greta Garbo Came to Donegal.

Hill was created a CBE in 1997. A Retrospective Exhibition was arranged for and by him at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1998. In 1999, he was made an honorary Irish citizenship by President Mary McAleese.

Derek Hill is only the 11th person to be granted honorary Irish citizenship. Mr and Mrs Jack Charlton, Mr and Mrs ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Mrs Jean Kennedy and Dr and Mrs Tiede Herrera have all received this honour. Three other people awarded Irish citizenship – Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit and Sir Alfred Chester Beatty – also donated their art collections to the Irish State.

Hill died at a London Hospital on 30 July 2000, aged 83, and is buried in Hampshire in the South of England with his parents. Memorial services were held for him in Dublin at St Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as St James’ Church, Piccadilly, London, and his local church in Trentagh, County Donegal.

Derek Hill had a great love of Rome and was the Director of Fine Arts at the British School in Rome for five years during the 1950’s. During his two tenures, he encouraged resident art scholars, which included Antony Fry and John Bratby RA, to travel throughout Italy, whilst, in the academy itself, Hill fostered a jovial, creative atmosphere. In 1989, shortly before Hill’s death, he established a charitable trust which provides annual bursaries for the Derek Hill Foundation Scholarship residencies at the British School in Rome. The scholarship is granted through an open, competitive selection of British and Irish artists in the fields of drawing and painting, providing a stipend and three months full-board in one of the Edwin Austin Abbey studios. Winners of the award have included Emma Stibbon RA and David O’Kane.

Generosity was a watch word with Hill, a collection of 20th-century art can be found at Mottisfont, including works by L.S. Lowry, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland, gifted by Derek Hill in 1996, in memory of a long friendship with last owner Maud Russell.

I composed this article on Derek Hill – in my opinion, the most remarkable artist to hail from Marlborough College in the 20th century – back in December 2018.

Edward Twohig RE
Head of Art