Recollections of Hilder by Sydney Smith
The students at Ashton’s classes were a-flutter with excitement. A new genius had been discovered. Julian Ashton had shown them a wonderful little watercolour by J. J. Hilder, and was full of enthusiasm for the artist’s unique handling of a treacherous medium.
Later on, Hilder joined the classes, attending for an hour every day, and I remember him at that time as a tall, dark, young man, who stooped slightly, and who made studies from the antique in charcoal. His aloof manner, which was really shyness, rather frightened the students and it was some time before we became friendly.
Hilder used to go out painting with Ashton, mostly on the Bondi sand hills and Bellevue Hill. He became a frequent visitor at Ashton’s house, “The Glen,” Bondi, and a great intimacy grew up between them.
At that time, Hilder lived in a boarding house at Bellevue Hill. Harry Julius and I spent many interesting evenings with him there. Hilder had bundles of watercolours which he unwrapped and showed us. I will never forget the feeling of wonderment we had and the loud exclamations we uttered as each was shown, and revealed the fresh outlook, the distinctive compositions, the glorious colour-schemes, the charming glimpses, which nobody but Hilder had been able to see. Nearly all possessed the jewel-like quality that marked his early work. Still, even then there were hints of later phases in his work. Some were delicate little sea pieces, one or two were grey nocturnes, where suggestive rather than actual colour was used.
There are people who still think the early Hilder’s are the best things he did. In my opinion, he progressed steadily. The very fact that his work changed so much shows progress. At first he gave us brilliant colour and charming decorative arrangement. Later, grey schemes became more noticeable, and with them, a close and more subtle observation of the forms of nature. Some of the later ones are almost monotones reached by a gradual process of refining his colour. Just as he was able to express himself individually as a watercolourist, so was Hilder able to do so with the pen. Some quite remarkable drawings exist which were drawn years ago. They were translations of Academy pictures from half-tone into line. The exquisite beauty of the work, the interesting patterns of line and the sure draughtsmanship, are astonishing.
Hilder never felt quite happy with charcoal. He said he couldn’t see how edges which were “soft” could be represented by outlines. He saw one mass of tone against another, and in his pencil drawings one can see exactly how he followed out his own peculiar method. The two reproduced in this book are typical. He drew by tones, but always observing the edges very carefully.
A workman, examining one of his clay-pit studies, once said: “You look at it, an’ it’s nothin’ an’ then you look agen, an’ it’s a barrer! ” An expressive remark which aptly describes his suggestive method. Most of his clay-pit water-colours were painted from the pencil studies at home on his veranda, as the hot sun made it impossible to paint on the spot. The “clay-pit” at Hornsby fascinated Hilder, and he made many studies there.
One hot morning he was busy sketching when a workman suddenly appeared from below, “Seen me coat anywhere ? “ he asked. Hilder finished lighting his pipe, I believe I’m sitting on it,” he said, absent-mindedly. “Well,” said the workman, smiling, “you’re sittin’ on me dynamite, too!
There was a little story which I fancy was rather a favourite one of his. He had been sketching for some time, and while he had worked, his pony, unharnessed, had been allowed his freedom in a vast paddock. When Hilder’s sketch was complete, he called the pony to come and be harnessed for the homeward journey. The pony stopped munching the grass, gazed at Hilder, and went on eating, Hilder started patiently acrossffe paddock with the halter, and the pony waited. When he reached it and was preparing to slip the halter on, the animal ducked his head and gleefully bolted for the other end. Hilder, enraged, stood looking at its receding heels. The pony, having reached the fence at the other end, looked up almost playfully. Slowly and deliberately Hilder started after it again. He tried some more coaxing words and the perverse creature came towards him; but again at the critical moment dodged and bolted, thoroughly enjoying the little game. And so it went on, Hilder tramping all over the paddock, vainly trying to capture the steed, until hot, tired and exasperated, he gave it up and sat down in the shade of a cottage fence to rest.
Suddenly he was aware of a sympathetic voice flaying, “I’ve been watching-you trying to catch your horse, young man. I’m sorry you’ve been unsuccessful, but I admire your patience.” He looked up and saw an old lady, who handed him a cup of tea.
“Tell me,” she said , earnestly, “have you asked God to help you?”
“Well,” said Hilder, despondently,” I did not think of asking Him, I should think God had far too much to do to help me catch my pony. “
“He’s not too busy for anything,” said the old lady. “If I drop a pin, I always ask God to help me find it, and I always do find it afterwards. “Ask Him,” she said, taking the empty cup from him. “Read this little text and you will find that it will help you.”
Hilder thanked her for her kindness, and sat down before beginning more peregrinations after the pony. He examined the close print of the little text, and read it. “Would you believe it,” said Hilder,” after I finished reading it, I looked up and there was the pony standing beside me; I slipped the halter on and harnessed him to the trap. I think, after that,” said Hilde naively , ” there is something to be said for the efficacy of prayer.”