Derek Hyatt


'for the pride of his eye'
28 October to 25 November 2016 at Art Space Gallery

View exhibition catalogue

A biography by

Tim Barringer

Chair and Paul Mellon Professor
Department of the History of Art,
Yale University

Modern Painter of the Yorkshire Moors

The painter Derek Hyatt found in the landscapes of Yorkshire a subject of unending variety. Turning his back on London and on fashion, Hyatt produced distinctive, richly-coloured paintings occasioned by events that he called ‘meetings on the moor’ – the movement of a distant figure through a bright field of hay or the sudden appearance of a kestrel against the sunset. His idiom oscillated suggestively between precise picturing of natural details and a mysterious symbolic language of his own invention. Acutely aware of the historical resonances of his native landscape, Hyatt sketched Bronze-age stone carvings on Ilkley Moor, finding them a model of direct communication through shape and form.

Although he never courted celebrity in the way that fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney so brilliantly did, Hyatt remained a presence on the London art scene for more than fifty years. His work emerged at the New Art Centre in Chelsea in 1963, with a well-received exhibition of flamboyant, large-scale gouache landscapes that flirted with abstraction. Later, he was championed by Leslie Waddington, who mounted a series of exhibitions in the 1970s, focused on Hyatt’s smaller, jewel-like oil paintings. Elements of topography returned, revealing the intricate geometry of the drystone walls and field systems of the Yorkshire Dales.

A key ally in the 1980s was the critic Peter Fuller, in whose journal Modern Painters Hyatt was acclaimed as one of Britain’s finest painters. They shared a fascination with John Ruskin, admiring his mystical engagement with nature and myth, and his profound commitment to drawing. Hyatt assembled works from Ruskin’s collection into a suggestive bricolage at the Ruskin Museum in Sheffield and in 1990, the year of Fuller’s untimely death, Hyatt was elected a Companion of the Guild of St George, a knight at Ruskin’s round table. In 2001 a comprehensive retrospective of four decades of Hyatt’s work at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, revealed anew its range and originality.

Derek Hyatt was born in the Yorkshire town of Ilkley in 1931. Nothing in his family background suggested an artistic career. His father, who had fought in the Flying Corps in Egypt in the First World War, volunteered in the local air defence unit in the Second, and rewarded the son’s accurate drawings of a Mark IX Spitfire with a sixpence. There were quieter times too. On childhood walks with his grandfather on Ilkley Moor, Derek learned to watch with rapt concentration the natural rhythms of life and death and the cycle of the seasons.

It was at Ilkley Grammar School that a singular talent emerged, as Hyatt fell under the spell of a large reproduction of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow. After studying at Leeds College of Art from 1948 to 1952, he completed National Service in Norwich, where he took courses part-time at the School of Art, while admiring with the watercolours of Cotman at the Castle Museum – and also working on his tennis.

In 1954, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he initially studied printmaking. Although he soon moved to painting, the precision of line required of an etcher remained central to Hyatt’s practice. A post-graduate fellowship in 1957 employed him as editor of the Royal College’s journal ARK, whose contribution to post-war British art was pivotal. But already he was veering away from the mainstream. Like Peter Lanyon, whom he admired, he favoured the Abstract Expressionists over American popular culture. Despite a love of Westerns, especially ‘Shane’, he found little of interest in the emergence of Pop Art.

In 196X he married Rosamond XXX and their daughter Sally was born in 1964; musical and well-read, from a Cornish family, Rosamond’s gift for organization was a perfect complement to her husband’s mercurial character. After a decade in the South, Hyatt leapt at the opportunity to move back to Yorkshire in 1964, taking a teaching position at Leeds Polytechnic, where he became a Senior Lecturer in 1966. Generations of students benefitted from his generous, quietly-spoken advice, and from the connections he wove with other art forms, especially dance. There he collaborated with the mime artist Lindsay Kemp and with the poet Ted Hughes, whose work he greatly admired.

Although the family settled in Collingham, near Wetherby, the moors remained Hyatt’s defining subject. In the 1975, he purchased a seventeenth-century farmhouse in Bishopdale, reached by a precipitous and deeply-rutted track. Named Barker, it clings to the moor edge, a thousand feet above sea level. From the window of his makeshift studio there, under constantly changing skies, he saw before him a shifting performance of colour and line. Curlews and swallows would pass at eye level, and he thrilled, too, to the sudden appearance of RAF jets from a nearby airbase, recalling his wartime planespotting. Hyatt’s paintings transcend topography but preserve, in layers of vivid colour, the dance of light across that ancient Yorkshire landscape.

Derek Hyatt continued to paint well into his eighties and exhibitions in 2012 and 2014 at the ArtSpace Gallery in London included bold new work. He was greatly affected by Rosamond’s death earlier this year, and died after a short illness. He is survived by his daughter and two grandchildren in whose sporting and artistic achievements he took great delight.

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