Catalogue entry

T04898 Composition in Orange, Black and Grey 1951–2

Gouache, emulsion and black ink on wove paper 1546 × 500 (60 7/8 × 21 5/8)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the estate of Lord Kenilworth through the New Art Centre (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: Matthew Hilton, the artist's son, by whom sold to the New Art Centre 1977; bt Lord Kenilworth (John Davenport Siddeley, 1924–1981), Sept. 1977; on consignment with the New Art Centre 1982
Exh: Roger Hilton: Lynn Chadwick, Gimpel Fils, June 1952 (24); [Opening Exhibition of the St Ives Gallery of the New Art Centre], New Art Centre, Jan. 1983–Feb. 1984 (no cat. but on exh. hand-list as ‘Vertical Composition’); Roger Hilton: The Early Years 1911–1955, Leicester Polytechnic Gallery, Nov. 1984 (136, as ‘Vertical Composition’ and dated c.1952)
Lit: ‘Recent Acquisition: Roger Hilton (1911–1975) “Vertical Composition” 1952’, Tate Gallery Calendar, July 1987, repr.

Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ comprises a network of broad, rapidly applied marks, principally in the colours noted in the title. This emphasis on brushwork is characteristic of the paintings which Hilton executed between 1950 and 1952 and T04898 was included in the exhibition of Hilton's ‘tachiste’ paintings at Gimpel Fils in June 1952. Reviewing that exhibition, Patrick Heron wrote that Hilton's 'whole system of pictorial thought and emotion is centred in his brushstrokes themselves (Patrick Heron, ‘Paintings by Roger Hilton at Gimpel Fils’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.43, 28 June 1952, p.771). In this way ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ relates in particular to ‘Composition’, 1950–2 (repr. Roger Hilton, exh. cat., South Bank Centre, Nov. 1993–Jan. 1994, no.6 in col.), which was also included in the 1952 exhibition.

Although there is no date inscribed on T04898, Ruth Hilton, the artist's first wife, has stated that she thinks ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ was executed ‘probably-certainly between 51 and 53’ (reply, dated 18 October 1994, to compiler's questionnaire). She recalls that it was one of the first works Hilton painted while they were living at 10 St Anns Road, Shepherd's Bush, London W11. They moved to this address in July 1951. It must therefore have been painted some time between July 1951 and the exhibition at Gimpel Fils in June 1952. Dr David Brown, who knew the artist and is an authority on his work, told the compiler in conversation on 10 October 1994 that he concurred with this dating on stylistic grounds. Ruth Hilton has added that ‘I remember he was pleased with it and it stayed on our sitting room mantelpiece for some time’.

‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ demonstrates the degree of abstraction which Hilton's work had attained by the early 1950s. This feature, and the increased emphasis on painterly gesture which this painting reveals, both point to Hilton's exposure from the late 1940s to French ‘tachisme’. Following his first visit to Paris in 1931, Hilton made regular trips to the French capital throughout the 1930s and 1940s and would have been able to experience artistic developments there at first hand. More specific influences on Hilton's paintings of 1950–2 have been noted by Patrick Heron: ‘Hilton says that it was not until 1950 that his first consistently abstract work was done, and that both Manessier and the Scottish abstract painter William Gear were at that point influencing him’ (Patrick Heron, ‘Introducing Roger Hilton’, Arts Magazine, vol.31, May 1957, p.23). As in Manessier's paintings of the early 1950s, Hilton has employed a grid-like structure in ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’, established by broad gestural strokes, which fractures the surface of the painting into planes of glowing colour. Hilton's use of orange and black, and the ragged nature of the brush-strokes, are also reminiscent of the work of William Gear, whom Hilton met in London in 1948. In addition to these artists, Ruth Hilton cited Maria Helena Vieira da Silva as a possible influence. In reply to the questionnaire sent by the compiler, she stated that Hilton was ‘certainly familiar with her work through his friend Vera Pagara, in Paris. They all (I think) showed at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher’.

When T04898 was first acquired by the Tate Gallery it was known by the title ‘Vertical Composition’ on account of a Gimpel Fils label on the reverse of the painting which names the work as ‘Vertical Composition’, quotes the price ‘40 gns’ and gives Gimpel Fils' address. However, research indicates that this title is incorrect. The evidence for thinking that the correct title for T04898 is ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ is as follows. Although a work titled ‘Vertical Composition’ was exhibited in the 1952 Gimpel Fils exhibition Roger Hilton: Lynn Chadwick (18, oil on wood, 457 × 140, 18 × 5 1/2), neither the medium nor the dimensions of that work correspond to T04898. According to Gimpel Fils hand-written ledger in which each work exhibited at the gallery is entered, the smaller works in that show, including ‘Vertical Composition’, were priced at 15 gns. The only item priced at 40 gns - the price quoted on the Gimpel Fils label on the reverse of T04898 - was ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’. This was the largest and the most expensive work in the exhibition. Furthermore, the title - ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ - describes the physical appearance of the present painting, and the size of the work bearing that title in the Gimpel Fils catalogue - 1524 × 508 (60 × 20)-is similar to the Tate Gallery's painting.

Described mistakenly in the Gimpel Fils catalogue as oil on paper, ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ is executed in gouache, emulsion and ink on paper. In terms of the materials used, this work differs from most of the other works in Hilton's 1952 Gimpel Fils exhibition which, with the exception of two works, were painted in oils. (The two exceptions are ‘Composition in Blue’, gouache on cardboard, no.2 and ‘Composition with Green Background’, gouache on paper, no.6.) Nevertheless, in reply to the questionnaire of 18 October 1994, Ruth Hilton has recalled that Hilton probably painted other works in gouache on paper at this time-though she cannot recollect the works in question-mentioning lack of space and money among the possible reasons for this. David Brown has proposed that Hilton used these materials because of his desire to experiment with the properties and behaviour of different media. Ruth Hilton has echoed this opinion and has stated that Hilton's aims were ‘always technical’ and that he was constantly searching for ways ‘to make the paintings better’ (questionnaire, 18 October 1994). In this respect, she considers that ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ was ‘inspired, if anything, by the technique of painting’. Hilton, she remembers, preferred ‘perspiration to inspiration’. In a subsequent conversation with the compiler in October 1994, Ruth Hilton suggested that the work's subject was inspired by technical considerations rather than any particular experience, that it is completely abstract, and that it is ‘based on what he learned in Paris’, noting in particular Hilton's insistence that ‘colour has got to work’.

Ruth Hilton thinks it unlikely that there were preliminary sketches for this painting. She has noted that although Hilton made drawings, he rarely worked these into paintings. The spontaneous, improvisatory character of works such as ‘Composition in Orange, Black and Grey’ is suggested by Ruth Hilton's observation that for Hilton ‘the paintings were the sketches’.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996