Roger Hilton was living at Botallack Moor, St. Just, Cornwall, when he sold this pencil self-portrait to Ruth Borchard – probably in 1966, the same year he made it – for, it appears, twenty-one guineas.
He was fifty-five when he drew this dispassionate yet poignantly intimate self-scrutiny. Delicate strokes at the top of his balding head perfectly describe minimal, flyaway hair. Faint lines furrowing the brow have been drawn with just the right degree of graceful pressure. Chiaroscuro used to suggest the sagging wrinkled area under the chin is sensitively applied, as is the mottled line represented the slackening downturn of the mouth. The elegant orbic precision of the rimmed glasses (one lens accentuated more than the other) halfway down the nose, is scrupulously rendered, as are the ingenious staccato dots for the nostril openings.
By this time, Hilton, a heavy drinker, was suffering from peripheral neuritis and an increasingly uncomfortable skin condition. Without a note of self-pity or trumped-up pathos, he had made a full account of himself as a slightly dishevelled, seemingly disappointed middle-aged man.
An earlier Hilton self-portrait drawing, from 1946, has a comparable look of unyielding self-analysis conjured up through tautly drawn features. There is a wry vulnerability here too, an acerbic, defensive look perhaps, but not to the degree so objectively delineated twenty years later.
Hilton was born in Middlesex in 1911, and studied at the Slade School from 1929-31. As a commando during the Second World War, he was taken prisoner-of-war by the Germans in 1942. His harrowing experiences towards the end of the war decisively changed him, forcing him to re-consider his life as an artist.
His wildly expressive paintings of the late 1950s, made with brush and knife, suggest elemental forces – of sea, wind and inner maelstrom too. By the early 1960s, what Patrick Heron called his ‘wild, destructive, gawky imagery… [had added] up to something utterly resolved’. In late 1972, he was confined to bed with ill health, and over the next two years made three to five gouaches a day – outrageously improvised, absurdist studies of nudes, birds, tigers, horses etc. – in which the struggle between figuration and abstraction, between the studied and spontaneous line, was wonderfully resolved. He died in 1975.