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.
A painter who worked in oil, watercolour, gouache, ink, wash, pencil and charcoal. A graphic artist who produced monoprints.
Born of Scottish-Irish parents in The Strand in 1908, she has lived and worked in the Cape for most of her life, but as Rykie van Reenen, in Our Art 2, 1961, writes: "The whole of her impressionable childhood was spent in Durban where she grew up an only child who loved drawing and was always busy illustrating her own plays…". At the age of fourteen she attended the Durban Art School. Thereafter she worked as a commercial artist.
"In the daily grind of the long years that followed," Miss van Reenen continues, "she was given hard, exacting, and for a creative artist, soul-destroying work; the usual commercial illustrations, tubes of toothpaste, tins of floor polish, cover designs, and above all, lettering… But those were years when she was taught discipline and meticulous attention to detail and craftmanship and a real understanding of her role and responsibility as a craftsman, a quality which is lacking in many artists."
In 1938 May Hillhouse went to London to study under Martin Bloch. Her studies included the theory and science of colour. This period was a most important phase - a turning point in her career. Right to the present, colour - its harmonies and contrasts, its relationships with tone, forms, and juxtapositional changes, plus its overall effect on the emotional and cerebral content of a painting - have been constant problems and challenges to be solved and overcome.
Returning to South Africa in 1940 she settled in Cape Town, becoming a personality in the local art world, and worked as an illustrator for Nasionale Pers. She painted in her spare time and participated in group shows, especially with the New Group.
"I well remember my first viewing f an art exhibition in the early or id-1940s, shortly after I has finished senior school; this was a New Group exhibition at the old and nostalgic Argus Gallery. The works included two very fine paintings by May Hillhouse. These, which impressed me very much, began my interest in art."
Her first one-man show was in Johannesburg in 1949, followed by one in Cape Town in 1951, after which she participated in local group shows. This was a bleak and very difficult period. She worked on regardless, without compromise.
In 1956 she went to Europe for, to quote Esmé Berman (S.A. Art and Artists, 1968) “further refreshment of her artistic outlook”.
In 1958 she joined the staff of the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Her influence as teacher and enlightener was immediate and considerable. In addition to teaching her students the basics of drawing, design, colour and composition, she brought forth their special talents by treating them as individuals. She instilled in them the essential values of discipline and integrity. As she directed them away from the unimaginative imitation of nature, so did she eschew the temptations of conforming to fashionable trends, technical gimmicks or shortcuts. One of her ex-students once said to me: “She was more than a teacher – she was a giver.” She gave firmly – strictly but generously. During this period she represented South Africa in several international group exhibitions, among others the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1959 and 1961, in Ghent in 1963 and the Venice Bienal in 1964 and 1966.
In the late 1950s and 1960s her technique loosened considerably and her subject matter became less representational; brushwork was freer, and “significant relationships between areas of colour and other related forms prevailed.
In 1960 she exhibited with Eleanor Esmonde-White and late Katrine Harries in a graphic exhibition at the Modern Homes Gallery, Cape Town . This was a very impressive connoisseur-level exhibition. Since then, she has from time to time produced numerous works on paper – gouaches, etchings, linocuts, monotypes and mixed media paintings – of a consistently high quality.
A small town but noteworthy retrospective exhibition of her graphics, drawings and other works on paper was held at the Worcester branch of the S.A. Association of Arts in 1978 and thereafter at Die Kunskamer, Cape Town, underscoring her mastery of the various techniques and media.
In 1966, following an exhibition of young artists at the old Wolpe Gallery in Hope Street, the Artists’ Gallery was formed with Brian McMinn as its spearhead. May Hillhouse was a foundation member. The Gallery was housed in Lower Adderley Street. In its short but lively existence (it closed in 1970 when many member artists were lured to more lucrative commercial galleries) it occupied a special niche in the Cape art world and was a haven for young artists as well as a center of stimulation and contact with for avant-garde art lovers.
In 1968 Miss Hillhouse retired from active teaching and devoted herself to full-time painting. In 1969 she went to Malawi, in 1970 to Europe and in 1972 to Jerusalem, bringing back new ideas and subject matter. These trips provided the core of her extremely successful 1970 and 1973 exhibtions in Cape Town. A nostalgic trip to Durban in 1974 was source material for further subject matter and challenges. The Indian women in their colourful and exotic garb were a generating point for work in various media, culminating in another successful exhibition in Cape Town in 1976.
In August 1979, the South African Association of Arts, Western Cape Region, presented her with the Cape Arts Medal. This retrospective exhibition will be shown in several public galleries. A well-chosen and representative, it reaffirms May Hillhouse as an important artist of caliber and integrity.