I have a friend who is a member of the Thames Society of Arts – I should explain that this Society is based in a little town on the Coromandel Peninsular, North Island, New Zealand. They have converted an old school building which they use as a gallery and for running courses – but that is another story. Dennis went out to New Zealand in the 1950’s and the native born Kiwi’s jokingly refer to him and an ‘improved Englishman.’ In a recent letter I asked him what the winter colours were like in the North Island landscapes commenting that Rowland Hilder was the first English watercolour painter to really make extensive use of winter landscapes. The New Zealand seasons do not have the dramatic changes of those in England, plants seem to grow all year and winter simply is the season when there is more snow on the mountains. Rowland Hilder turned out to be a painter that Dennis admired and reference to him had the effect of arousing nostalgia for the Kent landscapes that he knew as a boy.
This exchange renewed my own interest in Hilder and so I turned to a copy of ‘Sketching Country’
That I bought in a second hand bookshop some years ago. Hilder’s description of his working methods makes fascinating reading. He was an artist who loved making sketches out of doors, sometimes these were simply scribbled notes and ideas for paintings following in the footsteps of Turner who left a thousand or more such drawings in sketchbooks. Ruskin – who went through Turner’s effects and arbitrarily destroyed many that he considered might undermine Turner’s artistic reputation – wrote comments on the back of some of his Petworth sketches. Ruskin clearly did not think much of them – he wrote ‘rubbish,’ ‘inferior,’ ‘worse,’ on many of them.
It is curious how taste changes, now these little Petworth colour notes are highly regarded. In Hilder’s day Turner’s sketches and Constable’s oil sketches aroused great interest and the sketch became elevated to being a work of art in it’s own right. So there developed a taste for the direct sketchy style of painting practised by Seago, Wesson, Hilder himself and currently John Yardley. It is a style of painting which has attracted many amateur watercolourists. But beware it is difficult to carry off.
However on balance I think Hilder is right when he observes that; ‘…I am a believer in banishing from a watercolour the kind of detail which I have heard visitors to mixed exhibitions applaud as being ‘true to life’. Truth, in all art, is not the same as literal description.’