This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in The Bermudian in February 2004. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Georgine Hill has played a major role in the development of the arts for more than 60 years, but many are unaware of her work as an artist. “A Tribute to Georgine Hill,” an exhibition that opened on January 31 at the Bermuda National Gallery, should help change that.
A portrait painter who studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, Georgine Hill used her artistic background to encourage a greater appreciation of the arts. She helped found Bermuda’s first interracial art association and established the first art programme in the government school system. The show, which is running in tandem with a similar tribute to photographer DeForest Trimingham, is small. “I was never a commercial artist,” she says. “I always painted people who I found interesting, just as an actor chooses interesting roles.”
Some of the works in the show, of black Bermudians who were pioneers in their professions, were commissioned. Curator of the Bermuda National Gallery, David Mitchell, says the show reflects the convergence of the two abiding themes in Hill’s life: art and civil rights. The most important painting, he says, is of Dr. Kenneth Robinson, Bermuda’s first black chief education officer. Her portrait of the late registrar general Ruth Seaton James will be instantly recognisable to Ruth Seaton James Performing Arts Centre audiences. James was the first black person to head a government department. There is also a sketch of a young Hilton Hill, Georgine Hill’s husband, who died in 2000.
Another is of Bermudian actor Maurice Williams, who was a member of the theatre group that was behind a civil-rights cause célèbre in 1951. Dramatist Carol Hill, Georgine Hill’s sister-in-law, whose portrait is also in the show, started the group. Their protest was sparked by the arrival in Bermuda of the Berkshire Playhouse Company to present plays in repertory for a season.
When the Bermudiana Theatre Club, which brought in the company, restricted admission to people of “unmixed European descent,” Georgine, Hilton and Carol Hill organised public demonstrations. When the protest reached the attention of the Colonial Office in London, Bermuda’s governor was ordered by his bosses in the U.K. not to attend opening-night performances, and the New York Actors Equity Guild lodged an official complaint. Eventually, the Bermudiana Theatre Club dropped its discriminatory policy.
Filmmaker Errol Williams felt the protest was such an important precursor to the landmark 1959 theatre boycott, which ended discrimination in public places in Bermuda, that Georgine and Carol Hill featured prominently in his documentary When Voices Rise..., winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 2002 Bermuda International Film Festival. Georgine Hill has a sense of pride at the group’s accomplishment. She says international support was critical to its success: top U.S. actors, such as Hurd Hatfield, star of the 1945 film Picture of Dorian Gray, came to Bermuda with the Berkshire Playhouse and “stood behind us.”
When Hill says she has had an interesting life, it is obviously an understatement. It is no less interesting now that she is in her 80s. Over the Christmas holidays, she attended a screening of The Lord of the Rings with her two grandsons, Jay Butler, a Harvard student, and Russell, an aspiring rock musician who attends boarding school in Pennsylvania. Errol Williams says she impressed him from their first meeting. “She was so well-informed,” he says. “Her concern for equality and justice struck me.” Such concern is not surprising given her family legacy. “It’s not something that started with me,” she says. “It was something that was handed down. My father fought for the rights of blacks all his life in Boston.”
Boston-born and bred, Hill is a member of a distinguished African-American family. Her great-grandfather John Jay Smith was an abolitionist and state legislator. His barbershop near Government Center in Boston was an important way station for slaves escaping the South on the Underground Railroad. Her grandfather Dr. George Franklin Grant was a dentist who became the first black member of Harvard’s dental faculty. An inventor and pioneer in the treatment of cleft palate, he patented the first golf tee in 1899. Her father, Dr. Alfred Russell, received his degree in dentistry from Harvard, and her mother, Maybelle, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, was a pianist and organist.
Hill was the youngest of three girls, all of whom followed their mother’s footsteps and attended Girls Latin, the female division of Boston Latin, one of the oldest high schools in the U.S. They were exposed to the arts from an early age. Hill was always painting – her father collected her earliest sketches – and she took dance and music classes and frequented Boston’s art galleries. “Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had a wonderful Egyptian art collection that used to be my favourite, because all the people looked like me,” she says.
Hill had another talent. “A rich contralto” is how retired government cultural officer Ruth Thomas describes Hill’s voice. In Bermuda, she studied voice with Joseph Richards and was a soloist at church concerts and at the Colonial Opera House, the premier performing arts centre until the 1950s. Audiences called her the “Marian Anderson of Bermuda.”
Georgine Mary Russell’s marriage to Hilton Hill, who attended Boston University, brought her to Bermuda. She arrived here in August 1941 with her husband and their infant son, Hilton III, better known as Buddy. The U.S. entry into World War II was five months away, but it was a harrowing time for boats crossing the Atlantic. German U-boats were a clear and present danger. Hill recalls that the boat that brought her to Bermuda was better suited for the Boston-Halifax run. As fashionable then as she is now, her wardrobe trunk, she recalls, took up much of the space in their cabin. Yet she was imbued with a sense of optimism. “When you’re young, everything is an adventure,” she says. Her first impressions of Bermuda are just as vivid today. “I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,” she says. But she never found inspiration in the landscape that dazzled hundreds of other painters. Although she was exposed to all aspects of art in college, she has always been a portrait painter.
The family Hill married into had much in common with the one she left behind in Boston. Her husband’s father and namesake had been a Member of Parliament who had “acted as an advocate for his people at every opportunity,” she once wrote. Hilton Hill’s maternal grandfather was prominent businessman Samuel David Robinson, a founder of The Berkeley Institute, and his aunt Agnes Mae Robinson started the Sunshine League children’s home, Bermuda’s oldest charitable institution.
During her first years in Bermuda, she devoted her energies to raising her son and daughter, June. Despite being a city girl, she adjusted easily to island life. Cars had not yet made their appearance on the island, and pedal cycles and carriages were the main modes of transport. She enjoyed riding bikes but drew the line at cycling to fancy affairs. “When we went to a dance, it was strictly in a carriage,” she said.
Hill’s first friendships came from within her husband’s social circle and from the emerging group of black Bermudian professionals. One of her earliest dinner invitations came from E.T. Richards, the lawyer and a future premier, and his wife, Madree. She met voice teacher Joseph Richards at the Somerset home of Dr. E. F. Gordon and his wife. Clara Gordon was a highly cultured woman, a trained singer who had dropped out of medical school in Edinburgh to marry Gordon. Her Sunday salons drew people with similar interests; it was where Joseph Richards first heard Hill sing. Her portrait of his wife, educator Louisa Gardiner Richards, is also in the show.
Hill was a politician’s wife for a time. Her husband, a photographer, set up Hill Studio in the Burnaby Arcade building, which his grandfather had built. He was elected to Parliament in 1953 on his second attempt. The same year, Henry Tucker, the future government leader, selected him to be a member of a Parliamentary interracial committee.
Queen Elizabeth visited Bermuda in 1953, the year she was crowned, and Georgine and Hilton Hill were among the dignitaries chosen to meet the young royal. He worked with Richard Saunders, who became an internationally known photographer, supplying photographs to the local media, including The Bermudian. Both men left Bermuda in search of greater opportunities denied them because of their race. Hilton Hill was a pioneer in the development of black tourism, initially for the Bermuda market, and then internationally. It would mean years of shuttling between Bermuda, where his family remained, and the U.S.
Georgine Hill painted during her first years in Bermuda, and when several artists moved to Bermuda after World War II, she became part of a new and exciting art scene. Canadian sculptor Byllee Lang, creator of the Anglican Cathedral reredos, was the most influential of the post-war artists, and like many of her fellow artists, she ignored the racial barriers that existed at the time. Hill befriended Lang, who was a mentor for black and white Bermudian artists and whose art classes were integrated. In 1947, Hill, with Sir Stanley Spurling and Christine Diel, formed the Bermuda Art Association, which was “the first group on the island that brought people of different backgrounds together,” she says. Lang was a member of the group, as were people like Arthur and Gilbert Cooper, who were Lang’s employers at A. S. Cooper’s.
The Bermuda Art Association established a gallery at the Hamilton Hotel, where the City Hall and Art Centre, the home of the Bermuda National Gallery and the Bermuda Society of Arts, is now located. Members exhibited regularly, held art classes for adults and children and brought in artists in residence from the U.S. They also held photography exhibitions with outside adjudicators and exhibited important works from abroad, including those of photographer Yousef Karsh and Georges Braque, a colleague of Picasso. Their outlook was cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the exchange of shows they had with galleries in New York and Cape Cod.
Hill remembers the period as a “wonderful time,” both socially and artistically. Art-show openings were always an event, and the artists wore their fanciest clothes. The Bermuda Art Association later split into two groups, which merged in 1956 to become the Bermuda Society of Arts. It was through the society chat Hill and Byllee Lang established an annual exhibition of children’s art; this, in turn, led to the annual schools show, which is now a fixture on the cultural calendar. Hill served on the Bermuda Society of Arts executive for years and was a vice-president.
Her teaching career began in the 1950s, when the headmistress of Girls Institute of Arts and Crafts, May Francis, asked her to teach art at the same school where Carol Hill taught drama. Miss Francis wanted her dressmaking students to have some exposure to art. Around the same time, Albert Jackson called on her to teach art at St. George’s Secondary School, where he was headmaster. Neither school had funds to pay an art teacher. “I decided the best thing to do was to go to D. J. Williams,” she recalls. Williams was director of education. “I said, I’m willing to go into the school for the rest of the year to show you that there is talent in Bermuda, that there is room for a real art programme. Do I have your permission?’ He said: ‘Yes.'”
She supplied her own material, and her photographer husband lent his support. Her seine as an unpaid teacher ended when she took a portfolio of her students’ work to the powerful Williams, who gave the green light for funds for her salary and art supplies. Williams also agreed to her proposal for double periods for art classes. Her teaching career would last 21 years, until 1975, and for most of that time she split her work between Girls Institute, later Prospect Secondary School for Girls, and Sc. George’s Secondary, working at each school two days a week. Several of her students from d1ac period, including Angela Ming-Bean, are artists today. Her portrait of Angela Ming-Bean is part of her show.
Georgine Hill spent the next 20 years travelling with her husband and continuing with her charity work. She was a long-time member of the board of Teen Services and was its chairman for 20 years.
In the 1990s, recognition for her contributions began to come her way. She received awards from the community and from the Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs. In June 1993, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Her involvement with the arts has never lagged. She is a founding trustee of the Bermuda National Gallery, which opened in 1992. In November 2001, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bermuda Arts Council.
“A Tribute to Georgine Hill,” one of six winter exhibits at the Bermuda National Gallery, will run until April 8. Asked about her favourite work in the show, she says all have special meaning for her. Hill recently completed what she believes is her best work, although it won’t be in the show. It is a painting of Dr. Otelia Cromwell, who was the first black graduate of Smith College, and she is planning to fly to Massachusetts for its unveiling on April 18.
Hill says: “I am really pleased that I am painting at this time in my life. It was so easy. All that I have learned just came together. It was as if the painting put itself on canvas.”
Since the original publication of this article, Georgine Hill has passed away at the age of 95 in the year 2014.