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Artist's creative cocktail of booze and Beethoven

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 18, 2012

  • Roger Hilton, at his home in West Cornwall, is portrayed in Botallack O'Clock by Danny Frost (right and below right)

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In a letter to his mother, while serving as a commando during the Second World War, Roger Hilton wondered whether the story of his life would one day be made into a book or a film.

His mother must have wondered, in return, why her boy should have had such a high opinion of himself.

A century on from his birth, innumerable books have been written about Hilton, there were once plans for a movie starring John Hurt, and this week a play about the painter's final days opens at Exeter's Bike Shed Theatre. Told you so, mother!

Having received a string of sparkling reviews from this year's Edinburgh Fringe, including five stars from Time Out, Botallack O'Clock sees Cornish actor Danny Frost in the role of the artist. Written by Ed Elks and devised by members of Third Man Theatre, the production focuses on Hilton's final years when he was a bed-bound insomniac, plagued by alcoholism. Despite these difficulties, however, the period proved to be highly creative, a time when the artist produced some of his finest work.

Danny Frost said the idea for Botallack O'Clock began a couple of years ago while his company was working on Stalag Happy, a play about his grandfather, the late, great abstract artist, Sir Terry Frost.

"While touring Stalag Happy, we talked about other West Cornwall artists of the period," he said. "My grandad had told me all about Roger Hilton, all the stories, how talented he was, how funny he was and how infuriating he could be. And later, Ed spent some time with Roger's widow, Rose Hilton, who agreed to help and support the project."

The result is a 70-minute production set in Hilton's Botallack cottage, where he spent his nights listening to the radio, writing letters to Rose and trying to paint. It was a short period of brilliance, which helped secure Hilton's place in 20th century art's hall of fame and earned him a CBE.

"One aspect we have explored is Roger's keenness to appear on Desert Island Discs," said Danny. "He would apparently constantly go over his eight pieces of music and we've used this to form a large part of the narrative. Among his favourites were Beethoven's Sonata No 8 and John Gay's Beggar's Opera."

Born in 1911, Roger Hilton spent much of the 1930s studying in Paris. In 1951 he took part in the first fully abstract post-war exhibition in Britain, at London's AIA Gallery. To begin with he pursued a purely abstract vision, but by 1953 his canvases displayed figures and forms. He wrote to Terry Frost in 1954, stating: "In future I am going to introduce a more markedly human element in my pictures. I'm not going to be 'afraid' of figuration any more."

Moving to Botallack, near St Just, in 1965, Hilton entered his most intensely creative period, producing a large body of work and exhibiting widely.

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