Reminiscing with Rose Hilton

By Charlotte Rayment

When Dudley Sutton introduced Rose Hilton on Saturday, it was clear that we were in for a treat. Dudley, a theatrical actor, has been close friends with Rose, a modernist painter, for many years and their connection to each other had the audience engaged from the start.

They began the conversation by telling us a bit about how they first met. Rose was living ‘down a track’ in Land’s End with her late husband Roger and their two children.

It was 1971 when Dudley came to meet them. He was introduced to Rose and Roger, who was an established abstract painter of the time, by a mutual friend. As it so happened, Rose had just seen one of Dudley’s films, The Devils (1971), in the cinema.

‘I was quite surprised to find the evil priest I had just watched at my door!’ she said.

Dudley quickly settled in to the Cornish art scene of the 70s and became fast friends with Roger and Rose. Their families became incredibly close, holidaying together and sharing some of the best and worst moments in life.

In the interview, they spoke about Roger and how he influenced them. While Rose had attended the Royal College of Art in London before she met Roger, she had picked up a lot from him, particularly when it came to the use of tone and colour. Dudley would have lots of intellectual conversations with him and he too, became fascinated by his art.

While there were moments of sadness, such as when Rose talked about how Roger’s alcoholism eventually took him, there were also moments of joy when they talked of the fun they would have. As they recalled their days together, we shared their memories.

Rose said Dudley brought ‘a bit of sanity into the house’, as he (an ex-alcoholic himself) could relate with Roger’s affliction and could get along with him when others couldn’t.

When Dudley spoke of meeting Rose and getting to know her over the years, he said he found her situation ‘heart-breaking and moving’ and that she was ‘an incredible, brave and gutsy woman.’ She told us how he had supported her through the harder times and how he had sat by Roger’s bedside throughout the last three years of his life.

They then realised they had been talking about Roger a lot and with a chuckle, Dudley moved on, asking Rose to tell us a bit about her work as a painter.

Rose had already told the audience at the start that when she met Roger, he had told her that ‘there could only be one painter in the house’ and that he was it, but she had never listened to that. While she didn’t paint while Roger was in the house, she took every moment she could, whether it was when the children were at school or when Roger was out drinking. Over time, she created a collection of paintings of her own.

Most of Rose’s work revolves around the female form. Her paintings are modernist – ‘not quite abstract’ she said, ‘but somewhere in between’ – and focus on the use of colour and tone. This was also one of Roger’s focusses. She recognised the great influence he’d had.

‘He taught me about the relationship between tone and colour,’ she said. ‘He was a great critic of my work. He told me that two colours next to each other should never have the same tone. It doesn’t look right.’ As soon as she learnt that, she said her work improved.

Rose also talked a little bit about her studies in Rome and London, and the moment when her work was picked up by the Newlyn Art Gallery. Everything moved quite quickly after that. She began producing more paintings and getting a profile as an artist herself.

The conversation came to a natural end (although it looked like the two of them could reminisce for hours) and Patrick asked the audience for their questions.

An interesting end point was when someone asked about her upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren. She told us how they were against Catholicism and their love of art, how art was prohibited in their culture. When she professed that she desired to go to art school, her father had told her ‘if you go to London you won’t be welcome back home.’

Luckily, her brother convinced her parents that it was alright, and the rest is history.

When asked to give the audience one final tip, Rose said, ‘when you change the colour, change the tone.’ It was a delightful end to a colourful conversation.