Hillhouse , May (Mary Ellen) (1908 – 1989)
May Hillhouse studied at the Natal Technical Art School in Durban from 1922 – 1926 and worked for the next
twelve years as a commercial artist. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II she studied in London, where
the colour researches of her teacher, Martin Bloch, who taught several other South African painters, ignited
her palette in years to come. She returned to South Africa in 1940, illustrated books, painted, joined the New
Group, wrote critical reviews, and spent twelve years as an innovative teacher at the Michaelis School of Fine Art,
University of Cape Town.
The early figurative, illustrative qualities of her work gradually gave way to investigations of relationships
between form and colour. Spiky, linear rhythms and daring colour combinations became increasingly abstracted.
She obtained overall colour effects by using a surprisingly varied palette of related hues. Hillhouse explored
the effects of juxtaposing strident, saturated colours alongside subtler modulations. Although her mature style,
which is subtle integration of abstract and figurative elements, underwent little change, a noticeable variation in
May Hillhouse’s later works is the increased admixture of white into her customary red/blue/ochre palette. The
paintings done in the 70’s are characterized by their silvery surfaces, made up of opalescent tints, applied in a
rippling mosaic of spontaneous brush strokes.
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