One advantage of being a publisher is the chance to meet unusual characters who often captivate and sometimes outrage . Such a character who managed both reactions yet still retained my+ affection was the painter Derek Hill. In 1987 we published an unusual book for our list – an illustrated book of paintings and drawings – a book of a very different kind, representing a distinct coup for Quartet: Grey Gowrie’s Derek Hill: An Appreciation.
Grey was then chairman of Sotheby’s in London, and had been Minister for the Arts from 1983 to 1985. Derek Hill was acknowledged as one of Britain’s leading portraitists, but Grey considered this reputation to overshadow his standing as a landscape artist unjustly. Much of Hill’s most impressive landscape painting had been done on the remote and wild island of Tory, off the north-west coast of Donegal, where he helped to found a school of primitive artists. He himself had lived at the Glebe at Churchill near Letterkenny, a house he gifted to the Irish nation together with the extraordinary collection it contained of work by other twentieth-century artists.
Grey had grown up nearby at his family home at Dunlewy and a special intimate understanding existed between them. This was evident in the interview that formed the main text of the book, in which Hill talked uninhibitedly about his life, work and influences, providing a commentary for the reproductions of landscapes and portraits in both colour and black and white. It made a handsome, intriguing volume.
When he was in his late teens in 1934, Derek Hill had gone to study stage design in Munich and come under the influence of the Bauhaus before going on to the Soviet Union to meet some of the leading exponents of the amazing avant-garde Russian theatre of the time, just before the Stalinist crack-down on everything creative and the appalling purges and persecutions that followed. He finally left stage design behind shortly after the war and concentrated on pursuing a life as a painter. One of the points of the book was to look beyond his reputation for being a conservative artist who opted to paint in the manner of Constable, Corot and Courbet in order to stress his twentieth-century significance. As he himself said, there was, at the basis of his best landscapes, ‘a completely abstract geometrical drawing’.
The book was something more than just a selection of Hill’s best work with an appreciative introduction. So much of his personality showed through in the text that it developed a real sense of the connection between the man and his paintings. The result was a tribute to an artist seen by Grey Gowrie as one of Britain’s foremost painters, whose importance was too often misunderstood, being more appreciated in Ireland, where he spent so much of his life, than in his home country. The reception to mark the book’s publication was hosted by Grey Gowrie at Sotheby’s in Bond Street. Prince Charles was among the guests, since he counted Derek among his closest friends. It was a well-known fact that Derek had helped and encouraged the young Prince Charles to pursue his painting hobby during visits to Balmoral. Derek felt entirely at ease among the royals and the aristocracy. He was a frequent visitor to the Queen Mother at Clarence House and his close friendship with her lasted till the end of her life.
As a result of publishing the book I came to know Derek well. He was a complex character, who could overflow with charm one moment and be overbearingly rude, offhand and pompous the next. The female staff who had to deal with him at Quartet loathed him for his abrupt dismissive manner over the telephone. He was intolerant and lacked patience, and was in the habit of complaining incessantly about one thing or another, mainly about the inadequate amount of publicity the book was getting, in his opinion, or the inefficiency of its distribution in the marketplace. Yet whenever he contacted me he would adopt an entirely different tone, the message being similar but more tactfully put. There was no denying he was a snob whose proximity to the royals and the high and mighty of the land had warped his vision of the real world. Somehow he became too grand to relate to ordinary mortals, most of whom he considered mere minions – a category that could be extended to taxi drivers or even the wives of friends, to their intense anger. Yet he also possessed an undoubted gift for friendship and prided himself on having the common touch with those gardeners, housekeepers or Tory islanders who were his special favourites. It was all part of his contradictory nature.
Despite these misgivings my relationship with Derek developed to the point of friendship. He came to stay with us in France at the invitation of my wife Maria, in spite of the doubts I expressed about the wisdom of having him with us at close quarters. My worst fears were more than justified. Derek was insufferable as a house guest. His demands for service and attention were constant; at breakfast I found myself ceaselessly getting up and down to appease one or another whim in the selection of food items. As soon as he had finished one course, he would wait for the next with irritated impatience. His treatment of the household staff was positively feudal and I soon felt highly embarrassed by his behaviour. One morning I became so provoked that I was forced to remind him of his status as a guest in my house. I, too, could be a prima donna, I said, and could outdo him in the role any day. He then mended his ways to the extent of becoming more courteous, though there was no material change in his requirements.
Derek loved his food, and while in France was determined to make the most of whatever the local cuisine had to offer. Because of his ill-health and overweight, I was assigned to go to the market every day with a list he had made specifying what he fancied for lunch. In the evenings we dined at one of the famous restaurants in the region, where Derek indulged himself on foie gras despite his weight problem. In his better moments, he could be a marvellous raconteur, very much in the manner of writer and bon viveur Quentin Crewe, telling such stories as how Unity Mitford came to him when he was living in Munich to ask him to help her find a way to meet Hitler. Derek telephoned her when he knew the Führer had stopped at a favourite coffee shop on his way back from Berchtesgaden. Unity rushed straight round in a taxi and so got her first glimpse of her hero in the flesh, surrounded by his henchmen – the first fateful step along the road to the point at which, when Britain declared war on Germany, she shot herself, inflicted brain damage and was repatriated to wartime England as an invalid.
Greatly as I liked Derek – and he was someone who could inspire a genuine fondness – about four days of living with him was as much as I could stand. I fled back to London, fearing my level of tolerance would otherwise reach snapping point. I had no wish to hurt him. He was brave in the way he endured a great deal of pain and coped with his physical decline, pursuing a lifestyle that took him back and forth between the cottage he had retained at Churchill in Ireland and his Hampstead house on Holly Hill with a dogged determination. In France I left him in Maria’s care and they formed a real bond. Derek painted her as a sign of affection, and his fondness for her never wavered through to the last days of his life, when she often visited him in hospital.
After he was dead I missed the old curmudgeon. He had insisted on doing a portrait of me as well, to mark his appreciation of my having published the book. When the time came to tackle the job I had a high fever, the cause for which was diagnosed as pleurisy. I was almost in a delirious state, but Derek had travelled from Ireland specially to paint me so I felt I could not let him down. For three mornings, against doctor’s orders, I rose from my sickbed to go into my office till noon and sit for Derek. The result was a portrait which he called ‘Pleurisy’. It bore witness to my sickness and captured it on canvas for all time.
We have a few copies of the book left in print and I urge everyone to buy a copy from Quartet’s website. The book will only become more valuable as Derek’s provenance grows.