By Paddy Walsh
The picture has been painted and on Saturday will be unveiled at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties. A full portrait of an artist at work, at play, a professional and personal illustration as far from still life as it might possibly be.
Eight years on and after the journey of journeys through a personal archive of some 40,000 letters and documents, the definitive biography of the internationally acclaimed artist, Derek Hill, will be launched in the county he grew to love from his first visit here back in the 1950’s.
Biographer Bruce Arnold, initially introduced to the subject of his work in 1962, has been a frequent visitor to Donegal to research the book and brush up on aspects of a remarkable lifetime.
The programme for the MacGill School highlights an exhibition of “unseen early works” by the late artist which has been on display courtesy of the Glebe Gallery. The biography also delves into hitherto unseen details of Hill’s life and career - features of that life that he was reluctant to reveal in his own autobiography - even in a subsequent ghosted version.
“He panicked somewhat when writing it. He didn’t know what to leave out and what to leave in,” said the Dublin based writer and journalist. In the end what was included could to some extent have been omitted and what did make the printed page might have been better left on the shelf.
“For instance, he had absolutely no revelations about the famous people he knew and befriended including Prince Charles and the Queen. It was a bit of a jumble - a book that was far too safe,” said Mr. Arnold.
Describing the artist as an “immensely discreet man”, he cited the fact that he came from the stock of Englishness that was private and polite. “He was a very kindly man and too good natured.”
That introduction in the early sixties led to a friendship that survived the years. “We became firm friends and he invited me up to the Glebe and I’m happy to say we remained friends until his death.”
Arnold suggests that the artist was “always looking for approval for his work” - echoes here of a man not fully confident in his own undoubted ability or, at least, in how the public would react to it.
The archive material - all 40,000 documents and letters of it - reveals so much and aided Arnold in a task which has taken eight years to complete and forms the basis of his book.
“The first part is straight biography and then it turns into a memoir that becomes more personal and deeper,” he discloses.
When initially approached to write the book, Arnold, who shares with his subject both English birthright and a love of art, agreed to undertake it but only if given complete freedom. It’s this that will provide it with the anecdotes and depth missing from Hill’s own attempts to portray himself.
“He met remarkable people in remarkable circumstances.”
Some of these people, of course, lived and breathed the air of Donegal where the artist first came in 1954 to paint a portrait of the American art collector, Henry McIlhenny at Glenveagh Castle. “When I was writing a book about Margaret Thatcher, he introduced me to Edward Heath.” An indication of the circle he mingled in but not one that cut him off from his adopted home and its people.
His beloved Gartan features strongly in the book as does Tory Island where he established the primitive painting school. “I think the whole of Tory is coming to the launch. They’re waiting with baited breath for it,” laughs the biographer.
He too spent time on the island and in Hill’s other Donegal retreats - “I stayed in many B&B’s around the place” - as he completed the extensive work, going through “box after box” of the letters from the rich and famous who were friends of the artist. “I felt very faint-hearted after it.”
Adds Arnold: “Donegal was magic for Derek. He came to love it.”
And to leave it in the most heartwrenching circumstances when he knew his death was imminent returning to London where he passed away in hospital in 2000 at the age of 83. Poet Seamus Heaney penned the moving epilogue for the book which encapsulates in words the depth of a friendship and the image of a man who could hardly bring himself to cast one final look over the landscape that had commanded him to set up home here and inspired much of his work.
Bruce Arnold’s book will be launched in Glenties this Saturday coinciding with the final day of the MacGill Summer School where Hill was honoured back in 1990.