Rose Hilton pulls on her boots, dons a thick coat and strides out with her dog through the garden gate down towards the cliffs.
She does this walk every day, thinking about whichever painting she is working on. "It sorts out my head – you need a bit of time each day to just think through what you're trying to convey," she says.
Having time to devote to painting is a new luxury for Rose, who turns 80 later this year. As a child she loved drawing and harboured a secret ambition to be an artist: but her parents – strict members of the Plymouth Brethren sect, who read from the Bible daily to Rose and her six siblings – considered the idea beyond the pale. And though she did manage to study at the Royal College of Art (with a view to becoming a teacher) and won many plaudits and accolades for the quality of her work there, making art again eluded her when she married Roger Hilton – a pioneer of abstract art in the postwar years – and he told her that one artist in their partnership was enough.
So it's only in widowhood that Rose has been able to answer her artistic calling. Now she finds herself feted by the art establishment, and a new show of her vibrant, arresting work is about to open in London.
It would all, Rose admits, be a bit of a surprise to her long-dead parents: her father, she recalls, used to initially make her come home every night to the family home in Bromley, Kent from central London when was a student, lest she fall prey to evil influences. But her strict Christian upbringing helped to feed her interest in art as a child. "We had an illustrated Bible and we didn't really have many pictures on the wall that weren't religious," she says. "I was always drawn to them. I loved those religious pictures – I think that's where it started really."
At the Royal College of Art, Rose was a contemporary of Bridget Riley. Like her, she shone, graduating with first-class honours and winning the life drawing and painting prizes. A spell of tuberculosis set her back – but then she resumed her studies, won a scholarship to study in Rome, qualified as a teacher at Sidcup art college and had work included in a show at the Whitechapel gallery in London.
Then she met Roger Hilton, one of the rising stars of the British art scene – and her life changed irrevocably. "Looking back on it, the timing was right," she remembers. "He'd separated from his first wife. I was getting a little broody and I could probably have passed that mark and gone on with my painting. But the more I saw of him, the more fascinating I found him, and his painting as well. He was just beginning to get well known and he was so like his work, I found that really interesting."
From early on in their relationship, Roger laid down the pattern of their life together. "I'm the painter in this set-up," he told Rose, and he made sure that any ambitions she might have to be an artist took a back seat. That this attitude might go unchallenged seems extraordinary today, particularly to women born since the advent of feminism. But Rose says that her generation would have accepted it. "I was in love with him and I thought OK, that's the way he wants it, I'm in the atmosphere anyway."
After the Hiltons' sons, Bo and Fergus, were born in the early 1960s, Rose threw herself into being a wife and mother. A move to Cornwall brought more changes – not only was Rose more isolated, it became clear to her that she would have to keep the family on an even keel. "With the workplace and living place all one, it meant that we were a little bit more on top of one another. There was a lot of drinking going on. Roger's great friend [the poet] Sydney Graham used to come over, which made it awkward for me and I was always going out on the cliffs with the children when it got a bit shouty and rough."
Living with Roger was tough. He would shout orders from the back room, and Rose would find her private diary annotated with remarks from him such as "balls" and "fucking lie". "We did manage though," she says. "I loved him enough to want to look after him. He was very good at making things happen – life was never boring. Demanding, but not boring."
Rose's own creative urges hadn't disappeared and she took the occasional opportunity to paint when Roger was out, seeking inspiration in what she saw her around her, like her little boys having a bath. "It was my way of connecting, my way of giving," she says. "Roger came in one day after being out with Sydney and he said: 'I know you've been at it, I can smell the turps.' And then he did laugh a little bit. He said: 'Show me what you've been doing.' And he was so helpful and critical that I think by then he'd begun to weaken about me not painting."
Gradually, Rose was able to assert herself more. "Roger said to me: 'I don't know why you want to paint. Isn't it enough that I'm doing it?' And I said, 'Well, no, Roger. I want to wake up in the morning and see a painting by myself and it's the world as I see it.' There was a silence and then he said 'Fair enough'. So he wasn't really quite the monster I'm making out. And I think ultimately he had a very good creative influence on me."
In his later years, she found a measure of fulfilment in looking after Roger, who gradually became sicker, his decline precipitated by alcoholism and the legacy of a period as a prisoner of war. Believing she was supporting a genius helped her get through difficult times, as he became reliant on her for everything. She remembers her "bizarre" shopping lists with a smile – seven bottles of whisky and 500 Woodbines. In spite of the drinking, smoking and increasing ill health, Roger's last years were marked by an outpouring of gouaches and illustrated notes to Rose, the latter since published in a facsimile edition as the Night Letters. And the new show of Rose's work includes Taking Things to Roger, a poignant tribute to that time, with Roger prostrate on the bed and Rose hurrying to his side, the Cornish coastline visible through the window behind.
Roger's influence is still powerful today, although he died in 1975. "They didn't teach us much about technique at the Royal College of Art," she explains. "I didn't really know how to progress in the development of using colour. So from Roger I got that, just by listening and observing. When he died and I had much more time, I'd made notes of things he'd said and could now apply them; and there was nothing to stop me painting. The boys had gone off to university, so I threw myself into it. I had a chance, since I was widowed quite young at 43, to have another life and I still had the energy. I decided I would not have another dominant relationship and painting would be my life."
She looks back with great affection on her years with Roger – even when she is recounting some of the difficult moments, she is smiling. "He had a great sense of humour and a kind of honesty that admitted he was difficult. Just as I was thinking, I don't like this kind of life, he would say with huge charm: 'I know I'm a shit, but if you can bear with it ...' Even the boys come round to remembering the good parts. Children are much tougher than one realises, and they can benefit from having a slightly different life with creative parents."
Two successful artists together is not a mix she would recommend, though. "It causes trouble – jealousies if one does better than the other."
It's tempting to wonder what Roger Hilton would think of his wife's success today, were he still alive. Rose says she is proud to earn a living from her own work, and pleased to have had the opportunity to pick up again where she left off.
"I didn't want in any way to be compared with the art of my husband, because we're two very different people and I have huge respect for his talent and his art. To be true to myself, I had to develop my own voice."
Rose Hilton is at Messum's gallery, Cork Street, London W1, 30 March to 16 April
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