Hill, (Arthur) Derek (1916–2000), artist, was born 6 December 1916 in Bassett, Southampton, youngest of the three sons of A. J. L. Hill, businessman and captain of the Hampshire county cricket team, and his wife (née Mercer). The family was prosperous; in addition to running a shipping firm, A. J. L Hill owned a cloth business at Frome, while his wife's family, who were quakers, had a brewery at Weymouth. Derek was educated at Rottingdean preparatory school and Marlborough College, where his precocious talent earned him a drawing prize. His older brother, John, an interior decorator, persuaded his parents to allow Derek leave school at 16 to pursue artistic interests. He moved to Munich, Bavaria, to study stage design – his original choice of career – and the study of the Bauhaus school greatly influenced his later painting, especially his landscapes, which are underlain with abstract geometric shapes. In 1935 he was in Paris for six months, studying stage design under Paul Colin, and then in Vienna until the German occupation. He then moved to Russia, where he developed a keen interest in frescoes and icons and took the trans-Siberian express to Vladivostok, then proceeding to Peking (Beijing), Bali, and Siam (Thailand). Back in London in 1937, his sets for Frederick Ashton's ballet The lord of Burleigh in the Sadler's Wells were well received, but during an extended visit to Paris in 1938 he was encouraged by the English couturier and art collector Edward Molyneaux to abandon stage design for painting. However, the war interrupted his plans; he returned to England and, as a conscientious objector, spent the next six years doing farm work and painting in his spare time. Much influenced by Victor Pasmore of the Euston Road school, he made sufficient progress to be included in an exhibition of ‘9 painters’ with Quentin Peel and Colin MacInnes at the Reid and Lefevre Gallery in 1940, and to have a one-man show in the Nicholson Gallery in 1943.
When the war was over, he travelled to Ireland, where he spent almost a year. He knew the country from childhood holidays with his relations by marriage, the O'Mahonys in Co. Wicklow, but he now found himself transfixed by the landscape of the west coast, and spent long periods in Galway, Mayo, and Achill Island, where he painted with Louis le Brocquy, and was greatly influenced by Stephen Gwynn's (qv) Source of art, on the Scythian influence in Celtic art, with illustrations by Marie Howet. The winters of 1949–53 he spent in Italy, staying with the art historian Bernard Berenson in Florence and producing the first of his distinctive portraits, ‘The olive growers’. He was appointed to the board of governors of the British Institute of Florence in 1951, and two years later was made art director of the British school in Rome, where he worked for almost five years, but in the winter months only. In 1954 he bought for £1,000 (on the urging of his friend, the Irish-American art collector and Tabasco heir Henry McIlhenny of Glenveagh Castle, Co. Donegal), St Columb's rectory, and twenty acres on Lough Gartan, Donegal. Ireland was his home intermittently for the rest of his life, though he also maintained a house at Holly Hill, London, and continued to travel frequently. The results of his travels in Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan in the 1950s were two books on Islamic architecture, and a collection of Islamic artworks.
With the help of his interior decorator brother he transformed his house into a beautiful showplace for his European, Islamic, and Chinese paintings, pottery, ceramics, and scrolls. Many of the artists he collected he knew personally – Pasmore, Basil Blackshaw (qv), Evie Hone (qv), Jack B. Yeats (qv), Colin Middleton (qv) – while he also owned a Picasso ceramic plate, a Hokusai print, and four Landseers. With the help of local gardener Eddie Moore, he designed a noted garden, which he kept deliberately wild and informal since he felt gardens should reflect the surrounding landscape. The stables were transformed into his studio later called the Glebe Gallery, and a guesthouse for his numerous friends. In 1981 he presented the house, garden, and most of his collection to the Irish nation, staying, when he was at Lough Gartan, with his former housekeeper, Gracie McDermott, in a nearby farmhouse.
By this time he had a second home in Ireland – on Tory Island, off the Donegal coast. He first visited the island in 1956 and was drawn to its remoteness and the effect of light on the sea. Living for long periods in a tiny primitive hut, without sanitation and fetching water from the lighthouse, he produced the series of highly dramatic, tightly structured, tonally restricted landscapes for which he is best known. Paul Henry (qv) is an acknowledged influence, while the angular rocks and cliff faces provided the geometric forms he sought. Monk Gibbon (qv) wrote in 1963: ‘What is strange is that a humanist with a keen love of social contacts should have discovered in one of the bleakest and most remote corners of western Europe the seascape and landscape themes which many people consider have led him to complete artistic fulfilment’ (The Dubliner, Jan.–Feb. 1963, pp 42–3). While painting on Tory, Hill was approached by an islander, James Dixon (qv) who claimed he could do better than Hill. Hill responded by giving him paints and was gratified by the results. He collected Dixon's paintings and promoted him and the other islanders who became famous as ‘the Tory Island primitives’; but when asked if he created this school, he replied: ‘They were there already. They just didn't paint’ (Gowrie, 141).
Hill was a man of contrasts: he travelled the world but rooted himself in Donegal; he loved solitude and never married, but was highly social with a remarkable circle of influential friends. His charm was renowned; the Irish Times critic Eileen Battersby, interviewing him in 1998, wrote: ‘the delivery is straight out of Waugh and his gestures tend towards the theatrical . . . a lively, anecdotal talker . . . he is quick, impatient, benign, prickly, possibly capricious . . . genuinely modest’ (Ir. Times, 17 Sept. 1998). As his unpeopled landscapes reflect the loner in him, so his portraits – the other genre at which he excelled – reveal the extrovert conversationalist. Since he enjoyed a private income, he did not depend on commissions and said that he painted only those he wanted to, with no obligation on them to buy. Sitters included the prince of Wales, Lord Mountbatten, Yehudi Menuhin, Lord Longford (qv), Noel Coward, Sir Anthony (Tony) O'Reilly, Garret FitzGerald (qv), and Archbishop J. C. McQuaid (qv), as well as local Donegal people and Tory Islanders. Many of his sitters were, or became, friends; Isaiah Berlin claimed never to have spent such exhilarating, pleasure-filled hours as when getting his portrait done. Hill encouraged conversation during sittings, since he felt it drew out people's characters. A critic once remarked that a roomful of his portraits was like straying into a very good cocktail party – one felt they would all start talking to each other. Hill thought this was intended to disparage him as a society painter, but took it as a compliment. He painted the then president Erskine Childers (qv) in a cart with local Tory people, but the painting was not considered suitable for Áras an Uachtaráin.
Being financially secure Hill exhibited infrequently, which may have prevented him from becoming better known. Though not given to self-promotion, he was sensitive about his place in art history and acutely tuned to perceived slights, complaining if his pictures were not prominently hung, and taking steps to ensure that they sold well at auction. His paintings are hard to categorise, being too conservative for the avant-garde and too modernist for the academics. His reputation grew during his later years with a book by Grey Gowrie (1987), and retrospectives in Colnaghi, London (1994), and the RHA (1998). He has been championed by key figures including Brian Fallon, John Berger, and Edward Sackville-West in their introductions to catalogues of his exhibitions, but it remains for a fuller study to evaluate his place in Irish and British art history.
On 13 January 1999 he became the eleventh person to be granted honorary Irish citizenship, President McAleese then remarking that ‘it was a great tribute to the people of Donegal and Tory Island that they managed to satisfy his wanderlust’ (Irish Times, 14 Jan. 1999). He died 30 July 2000 in London. His ashes were scattered on Tory Island. His work is in the NGI, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the City Art galleries of Bradford, Carlisle, Southampton, and Birmingham. The Ulster Museum holds what many consider his masterpiece, ‘Tory Island from Tor More’ (1958).