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Margo Maeckelberghe and Rose Hilton: Two Penwith painters

Peta-Jane Field


Margo Maeckelberghe and Rose Hilton were born within a year of each other, and now they live a few miles apart: Maeckelberghe in Zennor and Hilton in Botallack, separated only by the sometimes bleak sometimes beautiful eternally ancient moors of West Penwith, Cornwall – the land in which D H Lawrence dreamed of establishing an alternative lifestyle and from which Katherine Mansfield fled, declaring it depressingly bleak and grim. 

There is a sense that an ambiguity has always existed about this land – the contrast between the picturesque and the harsh reality – the visiting photo-snapping tourists in their open top buses and the day-to-day grind for farmers eking out an existence from fields whose boundaries have not changed since the Iron Age. These two exhibitions at Tate St Ives add to this enigma.

Maeckelberghe’s expressive landscapes offer the viewer a continual tension, a sense that the earth is a mere scrape barely covering the hard granite lying just underneath its surface.

It might be expected that Maeckleberghe exposes the moors’ elemental rawness, because she is ‘part of that ..my family farmed it and tin-mined it … I am a Cornish Bard – and Cornwall does have a kind of Celtic feeling that very few people paint.’ 

Her use of sweeping gestures and unmodulated heavy black lines - a style very evocative of the 1950s - has been a constant and unchanging feature of her work for decades.

Hilton’s output, which is more varied, seems to offer a respite from Maeckelberghe’s harsher abstracted reality. Taking influences from an earlier pre-war period, particularly the French impressionists and post-impressionists, Hilton’s paintings have a diffused dewy softness to them. Her figures and portraits expose her real genius: her delicate touch in the still lifes, interiors and landscape works contain a masterly strength which seems to have been subsumed in her desire to escape from ‘the tension of her draughtsmanship.’ Even her landscapes contain these elements, conveying a feminine softness bathed in muted tones or vibrant colours, yet they reflect how the landscape and weather influenced her palette.

Summer Forms, 1989 is a visual poem to the rich beauty of Cornish rock forms bathed in sunlight and warmth but Winter, Botallack, 1999 contains ‘fierce colours and dynamic rhythms which make this a formidable painting but beautiful’ painting.’  Two new paintings are displayed in the curved gallery facing Porthmeor Beach, Interior, 2007 and Kenidjack, 2007.  Both paintings contain Hilton’s exquisite pale greys and lilacs and soft forms, the exterior image mirrors the interior, echoing her comment about another painting Grey Kitchen, 2004 (above right) when she says, “I deliberately set out to convey the sense of the soft, all-over greys of Cornwall sky and sea.”

These greys are not seen in Maeckleberghe’s work, which have ‘dramatic black sweeping lines defining their horizons’ with ‘overwhelming swathes’ of browns and orange and brilliant yellow marking the fields and moors exposing their austerity.  And as the art critic and historian, Nedira Yakir says, “Perhaps the most potent signifiers of the dramatic landscape are (Maeckleberghe’s) sky and cloud formations.”  Nowhere are these more apparent than in Winter Cornwall, 1973 (above left) and Leaving Storm, 1971 (above top), in which Maeckleberghe has captured the howl of an icy wind as it cuts across the unsheltered fields.

Visiting these exhibitions makes a mockery of trying to label female artists:  Hilton arguably is the more apparently feminine until confronted with the strong colours and sheer force of Winter, Botallack, 1999 (above left), and it is hard to see in Maeckleberghe’s work any indications of gender, despite Yakir’s suggestion that reclining female forms are present in the landscape. Nevertheless, their work indicates that a conversation between these two powerful painters would make interesting listening and leave behind a great sense of harmony despite their different approaches – especially given their history which is so closely entwined with the St Ives modernists, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter.



Margo Maeckelberghe: 'Extended Landscape' and Rose Hilton:'The Beauty of Ordinary Things' was at Tate St Ives during Spring 2008