Foliage with Orange Caterpillar was painted in Roger Hilton’s final years, a prolific period when the artist worked exclusively in gouache and drawings. The painting depicts an orange caterpillar at the centre of the composition, surrounded by a dense collection of petal-like shapes, bright pointillage and striped colour. Gouache paint is thickly applied in orange, red, yellow, beige, grey-green and shades of blue and green. The coils of charcoal drawing underneath the paint convey the speed of its execution. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph on 16 January 1966, E. Mullins compared Hilton’s late work to ‘matches struck and tossed away’ (quoted in Lewis, p.150).
The decorative character of this painting, the use of pattern and contrasting colour are common features of Hilton’s paintings from 1973 and 1974. The overlapping and clustering of forms make it difficult to read this picture and the composition appears to oscillate between areas of abstraction and representation. David Brown has observed that Hilton’s palette became increasingly vibrant as he moved towards death (Hilton, [p.3]).
From 1972 Hilton was no longer able to work in the first-floor studio at his cottage in Botallack, Cornwall. Long-term alcoholism led to peripheral neuritis and in 1973 the artist lost the use of his legs and was largely confined to a bed in a ground-floor room of his house where he lived and worked for over two years until his death. From December 1972 he worked only on paper, drawing or painting with gouache, switching hands to draw with his right so that he could lean on his left. In 1974 he explained to Peter Townsend, then editor of Studio International magazine, the rationale of his change in media: ‘a) It is cheap. b) It is convenient i.e. it dries quickly and allows superimposing. c) I can do it from my bed. d) The products once made can be rapidly disposed of.’ (Quoted in Lewis, p.149.)
Hilton said that the decision to paint only in gouache was inspired by a Christmas gift of poster paints to one of his children in 1972 (Hilton, [p.3]). Consciously referring to this association, his work often featured exotic-looking animals, insects birds and flowers; sailing boats and burning suns. On the subject of Naïve art, he cautioned, ‘One has to face the eternal problem about children’s art which is often charming and you can borrow from it. The difference is, I think, that children are essentially realists, whereas a mature painter is not.’ (Hilton, [p.14].)
Roger Hilton, Night Letters and Selected Drawings, Newlyn 1980.
Roger Hilton: Last Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1980.
Adrian Lewis, Roger Hilton, Aldershot 2003, pp.138–63.