On a grey overcast day, when the clouds seemed always about to descend on us, we drove to a smart red Georgian house by Lough Gartan, near a place called Churchill (Irish: Mín an Lábáin). This is Glebe House.
It had been the home of the English-born artist Derek Hill, who died in 2000. He had bought this massive estate in the 1940s for the bargain price of £1000. There was a sign in the car park, I wish I had taken a photo of it now, which pointed out the guests who were planning to explore the extensive grounds to be well-prepared as “Winter weather can happen at any time of the year in Donegal”.
We had a tour around the house. There were about 10 of us in our group. What a house! It was a riot of colour and packed with fascinating objects and artworks. I loved the design and feel of the house.
If was an interior designer, I’d use it as a source of inspiration. I spent a lot of time, thinking, I’d love a chesterfield sofa like that, or the patchwork quilt is to die for! It was beautiful, artistic and decidedly a home too.
We were, unfortunately, hurried around the house and asked not to take photographs (I took a few before this message got through to me). The explanation given for this was there were plenty of good photos on the website. It wasn’t about flashlight damaging the artifacts, as no one was using flash photography. I suspect, however, it was so that they could speed us around the house as quickly as possible. I went to the website, afterward expecting a feast of photographs, but was disappointed by the limited number of images. There was nothing wrong with the photos, it’s just that there were not enough of them. There were so many fascinating objects and paintings in the house that weren’t properly documented on the website.
At the end of the tour my head was buzzing with the names of so many artists, whose works hung on the walls of the house (Picasso, Victor Passmore, Francis Bacon, James Dixon, Edward Landseer) and stories about the rich and famous friends of Derek Hill’s who came to visit, including Hollywood star Great Garbo who only ate slice apples. Actually, little is known about her 1967 visit and that gap was filled by writer Frank McGuinness’s play “Greta Garbo Came to Donegal“.
Derek Hill came from a very wealthy family and (based on this tour) never seemed to struggle much in life – there were famous friends and artists aplenty. The house was richly decorated in William Morris prints, wallpaper, and carpets. I really liked the richness of the colours of his house but was disappointed that were not given more time to take it all in. Sadly, there isn’t a photograph of his richly wallpapered bathroom on the site.
Photos OPW from Glebe Gallery website.
I wondered if he was gay on the basis of his taste for lavish decorations and he didn’t have any girlfriends, or wives, just female friends – the snakeskin slippers under the bed, the flashy cravat collection also gave me a strong hint in that direction. Maybe there was a hidden struggle in Derek Hill’s life, after all. Homosexuality was illegal for much of his life in the UK and Ireland (it was decriminalized in the late 1960s and early 1990s respectively), and general social acceptance is a relatively recent phenomenon. There were creative men who risked prosecution, such as Francis Bacon and Cecil Beaton, by persuing sexual/and romantic relationships, but it was emotionally difficult for them and their lives were often fraught with guilt and shame. Others, like Hill, probably avoided the complications by becoming what was known as “confirmed batchelors.“
His jacket hanging in his wardrobe was very poignant as it still held the shape of his body, 19 years after his death. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s suit that hangs in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, in Wales. Derek Hill made his living from painting portraits of rich and important people. None of those paintings were here. His portraits of Donegal people are excellent. They were the best paintings in the house by far. The portrait of his head gardener (Below) caught the wiriness and strength of his physique well.
There is a great little coffee shop in a courtyard near the house. Its walls were also covered in original paintings, some by Derek Hill, others by the artists from Tory Island that he befriended and encouraged on his regular summer visit to the island.
With more research that I discover that there was a lot of “emptiness and disappointment” for Derek Hill. The British artistic establishment and critics dismissed Hill’s landscapes as out of date because they were too representational. Welsh artist Kyffin William’s work was dismissed on similar grounds. British galleries refused to buy his portraits, although the best of them (see below) are powerful works.
It is clear that Derek Hill loved Ireland and Donegal and its people, in particular. In 1981, Derek Hill donated Glebe House, its contents and the gardens to the people of Ireland. His studio and guesthouse were transformed into the Glebe Gallery displaying items from the Derek Hill Collection. He moved into a small cottage on the estate for the remaining 19 years of his life. It is clear that Ireland loved him back. In 1998 he was granted honorary Irish citizenship. in 1998, President McAleese told him that he had become “more Irish than the Irish”.
Read More about Glebe House here
Read More about Derek Hill here