Bobby Hillson: ‘Frank Auerbach said Keith was always a bit mysterious’

Keith Cunningham, Fighting Dogs, ca 1954 - 1960, oil on canvas, 182x122cm

Keith Cunningham, Fighting Dogs, ca 1954 - 1960, oil on canvas, 182x122cm - Credit: Archant

Bobby Hillson talks about her late husband Keith Cunningham’s secretive approach to his art

Keith Cunningham and Bobby Hillson. C/o Bobby Hillson

Keith Cunningham and Bobby Hillson. C/o Bobby Hillson - Credit: Archant

Keith Cunningham was an artist shrouded in mystery until his death in 2014. A contemporary of Auerbach and Kossoff with whom he attended the Royal College of Art, from 1960 onwards Cunningham declined all further invitations to exhibit, instead going on to a career in graphic design.However, the artist continued to paint, leaving behind more than 150 works in oil and numerous drawings and watercolours.

With the help of Stephen Rothholz, Cunningham’s widow Bobby Hillson is co-curating an exhibition of his personal works at Hoxton Gallery, around the corner from where the paintings were created.

“He left all these paintings behind and I always thought that they should be seen, but it was a joint decision with Stephen that we show them,” she says. “We chose these because we thought they were the most powerful”.

The exhibit, titled Unseen Paintings 1954-60, will display a range of Cunningham’s never before seen oil works completed over this period. Hillson describes the exhibit as “very dark. It’s mainly heads and skulls. There’s colour in them, but they’re quite dark in feeling.”

After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1956, Cunningham went on to exhibit at the Royal Academy and the Beaux Arts Gallery. Despite support from influential collectors of the time, in 1960 he refused all further invitations to show his work. Though he continued to visit his studio to paint every day, very few people were allowed to see his work.

Hillson recalls that friend and artist “Frank [Auerbach] said he was always a bit mysterious. He didn’t talk about his work, he talked about other things”.

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Co-curator of the exhibit, Rothholz, also puzzles over this, saying: “The great question for me is why, when he appeared to have the world at his feet, when he was being courted by gallerists and acquired by museums and collectors, did he step out of the limelight?”

Hillson confesses that even she is unable to offer an explanation for her husband’s refusal to exhibit.

“Nobody knows why. He never, ever said. But he carefully kept these paintings all his life. He went on working, but he always kept these. Every time he moved studio they went with him. So I felt they were terribly important to him.”

Though her husband occasionally asked for her opinion on certain pieces, she admits that “he was very loath to show his work when he was painting”.

Yet, it is this elusive quality that makes Cunningham such an intriguing figure in art. He completed the paintings following a trip to Spain after being awarded a travelling and continuation scholarship by the RCA. The scholarship allowed him to dedicate his time to painting free of concerns over money.

The darker tones of the pieces allude to the influence Rembrandt’s work had on the painter. However also notable is Velázquez, whose paintings he would have seen first-hand whilst travelling Spain.

Cunningham’s works in Unseen Paintings have a sharp focus on skulls and distorted faces. Sombre, harsh and at times disconcerting, the paintings betray a fascination with the subject of mortality, though Hillson is quick to assure that whilst “he wasn’t a gloomy person” the works are “unmistakably his”.

Hillson was unable to join her husband on the Spanish trip that inspired him, having just been offered her first job at Vogue. A fashion illustrator with her own impressive career, Hillson was responsible for founding and designing the Central Saint Martins MA fashion course. She mentored moguls Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, admitting “I’ve got quite a talent for picking them”.

She recalls her students fondly, keeping in touch with a number of them. “At the time that I knew them I was in a position to help them and a lot of them don’t forget that.

“McQueen was especially good; he’d always say ‘I owe it to you, Bobby’, which was very sweet of him.”

Her MA course at the art school also attracted a young Galliano who Hillson told “I’d be an idiot not to take you, but you don’t need it”, instead offering the designer a role as a teacher.

She speaks fervently about her husband’s work. “I think it’s terrific. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t. I genuinely think he was the most talented person I’ve ever met.”

Explaining why she believes now is the best time to exhibit the artwork, Hillson says: “I think it was an interesting period in English painting and I think it’s worth sharing. I truly believe in the work and that’s why I’m showing it”.

Unseen Paintings 1954-60 opens at the Hoxton Gallery on September 30.

Hoxton Gallery: 59 Old Street EC1V 9HX. Monday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm

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