Tim Hilton, who passed away at the age of 82, penned the introduction to the initial installment of his renowned biography on John Ruskin. In it, he states, “During my time as a college student in the early 1960s, I was advised that having an appreciation for Ruskin was just as absurd as being passionate about contemporary art.” It is a testament to Tim’s defiance of societal norms that he devoted his life to studying and writing about both of these areas.
Tim spearheaded the remarkable resurgence of fascination in Ruskin starting in the 1960s and his life story is unparalleled. He initiated the creation of this exceptional work in the early 1970s. The book John Ruskin: The Early Years was published in 1985, but it wasn’t until 2000 that John Ruskin: The Later Years was released.
Tim believed that the 39 volumes of Ruskin’s works found in the library edition were lacking and purposely deceptive, so he decided to begin anew. This task required him to endure various hardships. While he did have a pleasant period as a fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford in 1976-77, he also faced harsh winters while living in vacation rentals in Bembridge, Isle of Wight, where the most significant collection of Ruskin’s writings was located at the time.
Tim’s stubbornness was a result of his upbringing as the sole child of Margaret and Rodney Hilton, who were both communists and had connected while attending Oxford in the 1930s. They later became professors at the University of Birmingham, where Tim was also born.
Rodney was one of the original members of the Communist Party Historians Group. This group played a role in the division within the British Communist party after Stalin’s passing in 1953. In 1956, both Rodney and Margaret left the party. Prior to their departure, they were responsible for organizing weekly gatherings that their son, known as Timoshenko (after a Red Army marshal) rather than his given name, John, was required to participate in.
Tim developed a strong aversion to formal meetings that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He found solace in serious cycling, which he had a natural aptitude for, and it was a senior member of the carefree Clarion cycling club who initially introduced him to Ruskin.
Unfortunately, Tim’s early years were not filled with joy. In 1951, his parents split and he was placed under the care of Birmingham council. He attended Tettenhall college in Wolverhampton and later Aston Technical College (now Birmingham City University), both of which he did not enjoy. However, during this time, he developed a strong love for reading. After a brief stint at a Typhoo Tea factory, he aspired to attend art school. However, he ended up at his father’s alma mater, Balliol College in Oxford, where he pursued a degree in English from 1961 to 1964.
He inherited his father’s appreciation for fine wine and cuisine, picking up the French language from communist acquaintances in Paris. He wasn’t very focused on his studies, but he constantly nourished his mind. Towards the end of his time at Oxford, he developed a close bond (they had a honeymoon phase, but not a marriage) with future journalist Nuala O’Faolain. She described him as: “From the moment I met him, I enrolled in his personal university. He conducted classes in pubs, while walking the streets, and through wonderfully packed letters overflowing with knowledge and ideas. He was well-versed in art history and had a great passion for paintings. But he also knew about model villages, how to play bar billiards, classic French cooking, the early history of Aston Villa, Soviet songs, and the history of witchcraft. He was boisterous, content, unkempt, and vibrant – yet distant.”
After attending Oxford, Tim proceeded to the Courtauld Institute in London, which was relatively small at the time, to start his PhD. The director, Anthony Blunt, assigned him and another postgraduate, Anita Brookner, to co-teach a course on art criticism – Tim focusing on the English tradition and Brookner on the French. After two years, Tim began working as a freelance critic and also taught at various art schools, primarily Birmingham, Norwich, and St Martin’s in London. He thoroughly enjoyed the conversations in art schools and was a motivating teacher, as he believed that artists learned best through practical experience.
During the 1960s and 1970s, he referred to as “the anarchic golden age of British art schools” and thoroughly enjoyed it. He formed close friendships with various artists, such as Gillian Ayres, Terry Atkinson, Michael Bennett, Anthony Caro, Barrie Cook, Barry Flanagan, John McLean, Ronnie Rees, and John Walker. He wrote introductory essays for artist catalogs and assisted with shows for the British Council. He boasted having a photographic memory for paintings. His main influence in criticism was the American Clement Greenberg, also known as “Uncle Clem”. They would often drink vodka together in New York and London, and he considered Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961) as the best modern art critique.
He had a preference for early Picasso, abstract expressionism, and the abstract sculptures of Caro and the St Martin’s sculpture department. He held a disdain for videos and had limited interest in the Young British Artists. He was known for being extremely rude and intimidating towards PRs, and believed that the Turner prize was a sham.
Tim fully immersed himself in the lively and free-spirited lifestyle of Fitzrovia, frequenting popular establishments such as the Museum Tavern (unofficial headquarters of Studio International), the Plough, the Coach and Horses, the French, Bradley’s Spanish Bar, and others. However, he also dedicated long hours to working in the British Museum library. Although not particularly proud of his first book, Keats and His World (1971), his second publication, The Pre-Raphaelites (1970), gained widespread popularity. In 1976, he released his critical study on Picasso, followed by The Sculpture of Philip King in 1992.
In 1984, he wed Alexandra Pringle, who was employed at Virago. They relocated from a small cottage near Oxford to Hampstead in north London, where a spacious garden house was constructed to house his extensive book collection. He maintained his career as a journalist, contributing to both the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, while also handling household duties – a skillful cook, at that.
In 1986, Tim became a dedicated father with the birth of his son, Daniel. However, his behavior and alcohol consumption became more problematic. He justified his time spent on Ruskin by stating: “There are other responsibilities, such as work and marriage.” In 1999, Pringle left him and their marriage ended in a divorce in 2000.
After the incident, Tim was saved by someone he knew from the Courtauld, Lynda Fairbairn, who is an architectural historian. They relocated from London to a cottage near Beccles in Suffolk, which Tim had purchased to pursue his love for cycling. They tied the knot in 2005.
In the previous year, he released the charmingly unconventional book “One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers: Memoirs of a Cyclist”. The memoirs include a weaving of European cycling history, which honors the concept of “happiness” and the ability to travel freely, influenced by his communist upbringing. He also completed a comprehensive analysis on Van Gogh, but a disagreement with the publisher regarding illustrations resulted in its cancellation.
Hilton had 20 distinct cycling routines in his shed and did not stop riding until February of last year. By then, he had undergone a heart bypass surgery, experienced a minor stroke, and fractured his hip. Despite these health issues, he persisted in his studies on Ruskin. He maintained his identity as a rebellious and exceptional critic and scholar, known for his refined writing style. He was also one of the few remaining bohemians, defying societal norms and living life on his own terms.
Lynda and Daniel are the surviving family members of him.