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Anthony Hill (Achill Redo)

Constructionist artist
April 1930 – October 2020

Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Adrian Flowers: job no. 2025  June 1956  Anthony Hill (1930-2020), artist 

Famed for its spielers, houses of ill-repute and establishments such as the Coach and Horses and l’Escargot, Greek Street is still today the centre of London’s bohemian quarter. Extending from Soho Square to Shaftesbury Avenue, over the centuries the street had been home to many artists, including Canaletto, Peter Turnerelli, Thomas Lawrence, Richard Westall and William Etty. In 1956, the artist Anthony Hill had a studio on Greek Street, where he was completing a series of abstract ‘concrete’ paintings and wall-mounted reliefs, in preparation for the forthcoming This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. (The term ‘concrete’ describing abstract works that refer to themselves rather than to external reality). In June of that year Adrian Flowers visited Hill’s studio, to photograph the artist and his work. The shots taken that day show that Hill was moving away from conventional oil paintings, preferring instead to make three-dimensional relief paintings/sculptures, using modern materials such as Perspex and aluminium. One of the works that appears in a Flowers’ photograph, Painting 55-56 (Tate collection) was among the last oil paintings made by the artist. Hill described this work as a study in texture and reductionism, with horizontal lines suggesting the canvas was bound by bands. However the photographs taken in 1956 by Flowers inadvertently—or perhaps deliberately—provide a gentle critique of the concept of ‘concrete’ paintings, in that one shot on the contact sheet shows two square windows of the Greek Street studio, with simple astragals, while the next is of Hill’s geometric abstract paintings with their slender cross-bars motifs. Not only did Flowers photograph the paintings, he also took a series of shots of Hill and his collaborator, sculptor John Ernest, standing over a set of free-standing modular cube-like structures. Hill and Ernest were both keen mathematicians, and worked together on ‘crossing number’ in graph theory, an area of research that directly informed Hill’s art.

Anthony Hill’s studio, photograph by Adrian Flowers
From contact sheet:
Concrete paintings by Anthony Hill in his studio, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Born in 1930 in London, from an early age Hill was fascinated, and indeed obsessed, by mathematics. At the age of seventeen he enrolled as a student at St. Martin’s School of Art, moving on two years later to the Central School. Initially working in a Dada and Surrealist style, his interest in mathematics led him to become interested in geometric abstraction, which he felt represented a more rational aesthetic. Visiting Paris in early 1950, he met Sonia Delaunay, George Vantongerloo (a founder member of De Stijl) and Francis Picabia. Another artist who influenced him was Frantisek Kupka, of the Orphic Cubism movement. Hill was particularly inspired by Piet Mondrian’s work and the following year joined the “Constructionist Group”, a late offshoot of the Constructivist movement associated with revolutionary Russia. Other members included Kenneth and Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Roger Hilton, William Scott, Victor Pasmore and Robert Adams—the latter two were at the Central School at the same time as Hill.  Publishing a manifesto-like Broadsheet that same year, the group showed their work both at Gimpel Fils and the AIA Gallery, in exhibitions entitled British Abstract Arts and Abstract Paintings Sculptures Mobiles respectively. The Constructionists were not working in a vacuum, but were in touch with artists on the Continent, including Marcel Duchamp, the Swiss abstractionist Max Bill, and the American abstract painter Charles Biederman. They avidly read Biederman’s 1948 treatise, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge.

From contact sheet: John Ernest and Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

The Constructionists epitomised the search for a Modernism that would be viable within the complex aesthetics of post-war Britain. Although he had been making geometrically-based collages for some time, in 1952 Hill made his first abstract relief. By 1953, he had abandoned colour, and was making stark black and white paintings, in which geometry and free-form drawing were held in tension. A large painting (now lost) Catenary Rhythms was included in the exhibition Artist versus Machine held at the Building Centre, London, in 1954. That same year, along with Stephen Gilbert and others, Hill featured in Lawrence Alloway’s Nine Abstract Artists, a book which sought to distinguish between ‘genuine’ abstract art, and the more or less random styles adopted by those who had rejected figurative art, but who Alloway felt followed no coherent aesthetic. Alloway’s preference for ‘structural’ artists such as Hill, William Scott, Terry Frost and Kenneth and Mary Martin, was based on a conscious opposition to the expressive abstraction epitomised by Peter Lanyon and other St. Ives artists. The group showed at the Redfern Gallery in 1955, with a catalogue written by Hill and the following year were given prominence in the Whitechapel exhibition This is Tomorrow. Adrian Flowers was a steady presence at the centre of this ferment of creativity, photographing the artists in their studios as they prepared their work for exhibition.

contact sheet image of relief construction by Anthony Hill.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

After the Whitechapel exhibition, Hill gave up painting entirely, concentrating instead on three-dimensional work. In 1958 his reliefs were shown at the ICA, by which time he was incorporating sheet copper, brass, zinc and stainless steel in these wall-mounted works. The following year Hill and Gillian Wise, another graduate of the Central School of Art, became partners, and in 1962, Hill organised the exhibition Construction: England: 1950-60 at the Drian Gallery, a space founded by the Lithuanian Halima Nalecz, to represent artists excluded from West End Galleries. This was to be the last group exhibition of the Constructionists, and apart from the support of a small band of loyal curators and collectors, they faded from view. Hill and Wise went on to collaborate on works, including Metal Relief with Horizontal Elements (1962) now in the National Galleries of Scotland. In 1963 the couple showed in the exhibition Reliefs/Structures at the ICA.

Based on a high-minded aspiration towards an art that was self-referential and bore no relationship to the world of visible reality, Hill’s aesthetic was intellectual and personal. His often dogmatic assertion of the primacy of this approach led him to write theoretical essays, to explain his approach to making art. However, even within the rarefied world of mathematics, assertions of neutrality were not possible, and Hill’s art and writings can be read today as polemical, personal and even combative assertions regarding society, aesthetics, and the politics of his time. In 1968 Faber and Faber published Data: Directions in Art, Theory, and Aesthetics, a compilation of essays edited by Hill that consciously echoed the 1938 publication Circle, which had featured Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and others. Hill’s introductory essay, reflecting his own rigorous approach to making art, was entitled “Programme, Paradigm and Structure”. The following year, led by Jeffrey Steele, a number of UK artists working in this mode formed the “Systems Group”. Less committed to Marxist ideologies, Kenneth and Mary Martin, along with Hill, preferred not to become involved. However Wise, who had been researching Russian Constructivism in the Soviet Union, did join, and eventually this led to her breaking with Hill, who went on to pursue his own career. He subsequently married the Japanese ceramic artist Yuriko Kaetsu (1953-2013). In 1983 he had a retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and by the early 1970’s was making free-standing geometric constructions. In 1973-4 he adopted the name Achill Redo, under which moniker he exhibited at the Mayor Gallery and Angela Flowers Gallery, and wrote texts that pay homage to the Dadaists and Surrealists. In 1994 his Duchamp anthology Duchamp: Passim was published by Gordon and Breach. In 2012, he was included in the exhibition Concrete Parallels in Sao Paulo, Brazil. By this time, Hill was suffering from bouts of depression that sometimes made it impossible for him to welcome visitors to his studio, and was retreating into an intellectual and personal universe not unlike that of Humphrey Earwicker in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

“I asked LSC for a kick-start idea for do it. He gave me his take, but insisted I don’t credit him or refer to him by name. But I have done it. Lafcadio Svensen Carner, he said the short auteur’s cut was not to do it, to do nothing, i.e., it is not a thing you can overtly do. (How do they do it, these megamind pscientists?) They will never finally, really succeed in doing it when it = the grand theory about every it/thing. Best to switch to art, especially abstract art or pure absolutart—that’s where to aim (or aim to miss, as several stratagists convey). Re: doing it right, LSC said, “I could only come up with, you can either do it right or wrong, there is no tertium whatshit. (i.e. excluturd middleterm), there is the theologic of it. That and O’Kamm’s shaver, to the restcu.” (Achill Redo 2012)

Although characterised as an artist who championed rational intellect over emotional feeling, and methodical planning over spontaneous expression,  Anthony Hill’s work reveals not only a love of mathematics, but also an appreciation of the intuitive nature of art making. His work was informed by the development of computer language, with its emphasis on logic and patterns of connectivity, and he was equally immersed in the ebb and flow of 20th century art movements, such as De Stijl and the Russian Constructivists, but ultimately there is a personal introspective quality in his art that reveals the extent to which he was on an increasingly solitary quest, exploring philosophical questions on the nature of human consciousness and apprehension of the world.

Anthony Hill died in October 2020

Text by Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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Beethoven

Beethoven’s last piano at Beethoven-Haus. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Job No. 6482 
28th November – 3rd December 1969 Beethoven

In late November 1969,  at the request of the Observer magazine, Adrian Flowers travelled to Bonn, and then to Vienna, photographing places and artefacts associated with Ludwig van Beethoven, whose bi-centenary would fall the following year. In Bonn, Flowers went to the “Beethovens Gerburtshaus” at No. 20 Bonngasse, where on 16th December 1770 the composer was born. One of the few old buildings to survive in the city, this eighteenth-century Baroque house now houses a museum, the Beethoven-Haus. When Flowers visited, it was not only a photographer’s eye that drew him to some of the key exhibits, but also a sensitive response to the frustrations of Beethoven, who was forced to use ear trumpets, and to pound the piano keyboard, in an attempt to overcome his deafness. The photographs taken by him evoke in a powerful way what Beethoven must have suffered, as this condition made it almost impossible for the composer to hear his own playing of the piano or violin.

The grand piano at No. 20 Bonngasse is one of three—and the last—played by Beethoven. Made in Vienna by instrument maker Conrad Graf (1782-1851), it was loaned to the composer in 1826. Judging by the condition of the ivory keys today, it is tempting to envision Beethoven wearing them out with his heavy playing. The ivories have evidently been replaced on at least one occasion, then worn down again, like nails bitten to the quick—an image captured in one of Flowers’ most expressive photographs. With its label ‘L. van Beethofen”,  the piano could be read as a testament to the frustrations experienced by the composer. However this is probably a romantic notion, as the composer died in 1827 and the Graf piano has been played many times since then, by other musicians. The ear trumpets and acoustic instruments, also photographed by Flowers, provide more telling evidence of the composer’s deafness. They were made for Beethoven by Johann Nepomunk Mälzel, a Czech inventor who also invented the metronome.

Beethoven’s last piano, at Beethoven-Haus, No.20 Bonngasse, made by Conrad Graf. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Flowers’ photographs of piano and artefacts appeared a year later, in an article written by Colin Cross and published in the Observer magazine on 29th November 1970. Other photographs by Flowers that accompanied the article include an interior view of the ornate concert hall of the Vienna Friends of Music, founded in 1814. The Friends were so mean-spirited in paying Beethoven that he nicknamed them the ‘Musikfiend’, or enemies of music. Nevertheless, they were friendly enough to allow Flowers to photograph their collection of historic violins. He also visited the Vienna Academy of Music, photographing seven year-old Ulrike Brodl practising the piano. Sadly, the hopes expressed by the Observer in 1969, that Brodl would become a prodigy, appear not to have been borne out. The article was illustrated also with a photograph by Flowers of the autograph score for Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica”. This had been dedicated in 1803 to the composer’s hero Napoleon, but when the latter crowned himself Emperor—a political act that infuriated Beethoven—the composer scratched out the dedication with the nib of his quill pen, lamenting “Is he then, too, nothing more an ordinary human being?” The repudiation seemed complete (and its mythologizing certainly was) until Napoleon’s brother Jerome, crowned king of Westphalia, asked Beethoven to become court composer, a move thwarted by patrons in Vienna, who paid him to remain in the Austrian capital.

Observer magazine article 29th November 1970

Other photographs that are preserved in the AF Archive, but did not appear in the 1970 Observer article, include the exterior of No. 20 Bonngasse, the attic bedroom where Beethoven was born, autograph scores, a pencil sketch of the composer by August von Kloeber, a 1905 bronze bust by Russian-born sculptor Naoum Aronson, in the museum garden, and a detail of the bronze monument, sculpted by Caspar von Zumbusch in 1880, in Beethovenplatz in Vienna.

In another article in that same issue of the Observer magazine, Peter Heyworth wrote about Beethoven: “Like most men of his age (he was born the same year as Wordsworth), he was generally sympathetic to the ideals of 1789, liked to consider himself a democrat and cultivated a gruff egalitarian manner that shocked the courtier in Goethe, born a crucial 21 years earlier. . . Until disillusionment set in, he regarded Napoleon as the liberator of mankind, and if that sounds naïve, it pales before the eulogies heaped on Stalin’s head by British intellectuals in the days of the Popular Front.”  In the British cultural world of the early 1970’s, Beethoven occupied an uneasy place, admired for his musical genius but suspect because of his pan-European credentials and Promethean undertones. In A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, the protagonist Alex, subjected to aversion therapy, complains  “I wake up. The pain and sickness all over me like an animal. Then I realised what it was. The music coming up from the floor was our old friend, Ludwig Van, and the dreaded Ninth Symphony”. In A Clockwork Orange, a direct link is drawn between Beethoven’s music and anarchic violence and terror. In 2019, for different, but perhaps related, reasons, a group of 29 British MEP’s turned their backs when his Ode to Joy, an extract from the Ninth Symphony and the anthem of the European Union, was played at the Parliament in Strasbourg. With the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth now being celebrated, half a century after Flowers visited Bonn and Vienna, his photographs are as visually eloquent today, as they were then.

The room where Beethoven was born, Beethoven-Haus, No.20 Bonngasse

Text: Peter Murray

Editor & publisher: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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This is Tomorrow

Mary Martin with model of installation Environment for the Whitechapel exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ taken from contact sheet of photgraphs by Adrian Flowers

In 1955 Adrian Flowers photographed artists Mary and Kenneth Martin in their studio in London. At the time, Mary was working on her maquette for Environment, an installation she, in collaboration with architect John Weeks, created for the This is Tomorrow exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery the following year. As was usual at the time, Martin repaid Adrian for his work by gifting him Expanding Form, a three dimensional work made of Perspex, stainless steel and wood. Years later, in 1984, Adrian loaned this work to the retrospective exhibition of Mary Martin’s work, held at the Tate Gallery. One of his 1955 photographs was also used for the catalogue that accompanied this exhibition.

Born in Folkestone, Kent in 1907, Mary Martin (née Balmford) was one of the most influential abstract artists to work in Britain in the post war period. In the latter half of the 1920’s she studied at both Goldsmiths’ College and the Royal College of Art. In 1930 she married fellow student Kenneth Martin; they had two sons, John and Paul. Although Mary died prematurely, in 1969, she left behind a legacy of artworks that have continued to shape people’s view of what “Modern Art” meant to Britain in the post-war decades. Having raised, along with her husband Kenneth, a family during the 1940’s, Martin was in no position to become a full-time artist until 1950, by which time she was in her ‘forties. Her career spanned just two decades, but during that time she made a considerable impression, achieving recognition for an intellectually rigorous approach to the making of art. Her first abstract reliefs date from 1951. Commissioned to curate an exhibition of abstract art for the Festival of Britain in 1950, Kenneth was a catalyst in Martin’s decision to abandon figurative painting in favour of abstract art. Influences included the work of Piet Mondrian, J. W. Power’s The Elements of Pictorial Construction, and artist friends, notably Victor Pasmore and Adrian Heath. Whether constructed in two or three dimensions, Martin’s work was shaped by classical geometries and vectors, with echoes of the art of paper folding, or Origami. With its mathematical basis—not least an interest in Fibonacci sequence and the ‘Golden Section’—her work was also in many ways an artistic response to the technological developments then taking place in the world of logic and computing, reflecting the philosophies of both Plato and of George Boole. As with computer switching, many of her constructions contain elements that appear open or closed, black or white, positive or negative—operating visually in much the same way as hinged windows on the façade of a building. This architectural quality in her work is not accidental;  in 1956 Martin collaborated with Kenneth Martin and the architect John Weeks, in building an installation in the influential Whitechapel Gallery exhibition This is Tomorrow, and not long afterwards designed a free-standing wall for Musgrave Park hospital  Belfast. Her monumental frieze-like wall construction, made for the University of Stirling in 1969 and experienced by thousands of students, still serves as a powerful expression of how Modernism shaped British society and intellectual thought during these years. What was important to Martin was that her work could operate in a purely architectonic way. She was less interested in applying artworks as an afterthought to a building. She was an influential artist, not least because of her writings on art and architecture, many of which were published in the Dutch architectural magazine Structure. 

Mary Martin with Black Relief 1957(?), perspex and wood. Photograph from Tate Catalogue 1984

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©