Derek Hirst

Artist of 'Place' - first Yorkshire, then Sussex, Andalusia, Morocco, the Far East and Japan


Derek Hirst, painter: born Doncaster, Yorkshire 11 April 1930; married 1951 Ellen Hempel; died Chichester, West Sussex 17 May 2006.

Yorkshire has produced several important modern artists. Some of these have become famous, the subjects of books and exhibitions, of media attention. Some have remained art-world properties, admired and sustained by faithful galleries, by friends who were often artists or critics, and by discriminating collectors who fall in love with the work and come to know and admire the artist. Derek Hirst was a fine example of this sort. There are many who needed a new Hirst now and again, and, whenever possible, personal contact with the man himself.

He was, indeed, an amazing man, charged with incredible energy. He was diagnosed as having cancer in 1970. A major operation followed in 1976. Some time after that he was declared clear, but the disease returned in 1998 and from that time on he needed several operations. Recently developed lung cancer carried him off. So Hirst was long beleaguered by ill-health. But he seemed indomitable - the Derek Hirst one met was alert and alive beyond all possible expectation.

Hirst's mother, he told me, was a Romany; his father an agricultural labourer. They met, one imagines, in a field near Doncaster and married soon after. Derek was born in Doncaster. He was a bright schoolboy. A scholarship to Doncaster Grammar School led to his being marked out for Oxbridge. He remembered being called "Derek" by his stern headmaster, who then proceeded to embrace the boy in expectation of his academic success and the school's greater glory. But there was also a wise art master, who guided Derek's first efforts in serious drawing and painting and showed him reproductions (in the few books then available) of modern art.

Aged 16, Derek Hirst entered Doncaster Art School, where he met his future wife, Ellen, a Dane. After two years he moved to London and the Royal College of Art. The teaching there struck him as reactionary, but he could call on London's many resources, preferring the British Museum, the Science Museum and other non-art institutions to the National Gallery and the rather sluggish Tate.

In 1951 he found a studio and worked indefatigably. Art students were not expected then to achieve instant fame or notoriety; Hirst had time on his side. In 1962 he had his first significant solo exhibition, at Tooth's in London. From 1970 on he showed regularly at Angela Flowers Gallery and then at Flowers East. He would say that he owed much to their unfaltering support.

He taught part-time at various art schools, while Ellen taught art in secondary schools. In 1953 they began to travel on the Continent - to Lascaux, where Derek was astonished by the way those majestic animal images are powered by the convex surfaces they were painted on, and into Spain. Spain became their spiritual home; they went annually if they could, in spite of the Fascism that still ruled there (Derek Hirst was one of nature's lefties), and subsequently more comfortably as democracy was re-established, getting to know the country well, Andalusia especially.

Hirst was offered guest positions at various universities, some of which took him abroad. Having been the first artist-in-residence at Sussex in 1966, he was also a visiting professor repeatedly at York University in Toronto, and subsequently in Detroit, Arizona State and in Evora, Portugal.

After the health crisis of 1976, Derek and Ellen found a house in Sidlesham in West Sussex, close to Pagham Harbour. They divided their time between Sidlesham and London, and could earn some travelling money by letting the house.

Hirst's art had become, or seemed, abstract. One hesitates to use that word because he was, above all else, an artist of Place (he would want that capital letter). "Place" meant Yorkshire from the first, but then also Sussex, Spain and in 1964 Morocco and, much later, the Far East including a period in Japan where Zen gardens and a last-minute glimpse of Mount Fuji made permanent impressions on him. Back in the studio, memories and photos of Place would be turned into artistic vision and physical fact.

Place meant light and form, and the spirit of the place, often presented by architecture, noble and ignoble, resplendent or scarred by time and events. Vision meant celebration through simplification and enhancement, including latterly admiration laced with awareness of mortality. Physical fact involved a process of building and painting that made its own contribution: you have to "respond to what the work is saying".

The resulting images varied widely over the years, and came in sets that showed him taking a subject through its paces. The mouldering armchair dumped on snowy ground in Doncaster was succeeded by meticulously painted archways on relief panels, celebratory and glowing with colour. The sea and seashore near Sidlesham and the weather shaping them became other relief paintings, for which he developed his own mix of plaster and paint. This also enabled him to make images of Spanish houses and their deep windows and heavy doors, with and without resonant colour but usually with artfully damaged surfaces speaking of time and survival. There is also the long series of golden paint-objects, subtly imperfect, suggesting the doors of treasuries and tabernacles, and the variations he worked on the theme of Fuji, silent and mysterious.

The most articulate of men, Hirst spoke vividly and humorously about his work, about the art world and about life. He loved talking, often about artists he admired and felt close to (Prunella Clough was a very special friend). He worked in his Sidlesham attic studio, small but well lit and organised to cope with dust from his hammering as well as finely painted surfaces. It was a sad day, not long ago, when he had to give up climbing that fold-down ladder and confine himself to working on paper on a lower floor.

Time was when the Tate gave major retrospective exhibitions to artists of proven calibre and published catalogues recording their careers, but it has abandoned that national duty. Flowers East have planned a major Derek Hirst show in July. This will now be a memorial exhibition. In a beautiful film made about him recently by Christine Morris, he says that making art is a kind of journey - and that his work is "evidence that I have been alive".

Norbert Lynton

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