It is hard to think of any landscape painter of his generation whose work is as widely known, and whose images – most typically of the Kentish Weald in the vivid dignity of winter – have taken such a hold on the public’s affections. Hilder’s favourite painting country was the rolling northern downland from Shoreham eastwards towards Maidstone, as shown here.
A visit to the annual exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in the Mall Galleries, London, still reveals groups of artists who paint in his manner, whether they know it or not.
Rowland Hilder was born in 1905 at Great Neck, Long Island USA. His parents, whom were originally from Kent, brought him back when they finally returned to England in 1915. Following the return of his family to England in 1915, he lived in New Cross, South London, and attended Aske’s Hatcham School.
Hilder trained at Goldsmith’s College School of Art where he studied illustration and printmaking under Edmund Sullivan for three years in the 1920s. He was also influenced by Muirhead Bone and Frank Brangwyn. However, he was most interested in becoming a marine painter, and so tried to follow the example of W L Wyllie, teaching himself the art of watercolour. In 1929, he married his fellow Goldsmiths student, Edith Blenkiron, the daughter of a boot and shoe buyer.
Working as an illustrator from 1925, Hilder had his status boosted a decade later, in 1935, when he took the place of Sullivan at Goldsmiths’ College. In the same year, he established his reputation as a watercolour painter of British landscapes with his first solo show at the Fine Art Society. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and other London venues and, in 1938, was elected to the membership of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (RI). During the Second World War, he worked first as a camouflage officer and, later, as an artist in the Central Office of Information.
In the post-war period, Hilder devoted an increased amount of time to painting. He set up the Heron Press to market his prints and Christmas cards, and by 1951 ‘was the most popular landscape artist of the time’ (Alan Horne, The Dictionary of 20th Century British Illustrators, Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1994, page 247). He worked with his wife, Edith, on the Shell Guide to the Flowers of the Countryside (1955), and produced paintings for the Shell Guide to Kent (1958), the first in the series of volumes devoted to counties. In 1960 the printing and publishing company of Royle took over the stock of the Heron Press and acted as distributor, while Hilder continued to produce many paintings for reproduction.
In 1963, Royle took over the Heron Press completely, and Hilder became its consultant art adviser. His career as a commercial illustrator virtually ended and ‘he devoted his time to painting for painting’s sake; the fact that much of his work was reproduced [being] almost incidental’ (Horne, 1994: 247). He was elected as President of the RI in 1964 and published a number of manuals, including Starting with Watercolour (1966) and Painting Landscapes in Watercolour (1983). In 1986, he was awarded the OBE. He lived at Blackheath in London for many years and died at Greenwich on 21 April 1993. His wife, Edith, had died nine months earlier.