Friday, May 20, 2011

Hilda Quick and the Minack Theatre

A visit to the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno is a truly memorable experience. Looking down into the amphitheatre from the entrance, the first impression is of a cascade of terraces tumbling vertiginously into the waters of the Atlantic far below. This downward momentum is abruptly halted by a stage on which the ancient Greeks would have felt quite at home. Beyond lies the ocean, an enticing aquamarine on a calm summer’s day, but prone to being whipped up into a turbulent frenzy by the unpredictable Cornish weather.

It is difficult to realise that this space was hewn out of granite and gorse eighty years ago, by hand! The project was the vision of Rowena Cade, a lover of the theatre, who believed that the location would make an ideal backdrop for a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. With the assistance of only two labourers, she worked tirelessly to fulfil her dream. While Rowena focussed on the construction of the site (on land owned by her family) she relied on the skills of friends and acquaintances to deal with the practical aspects of theatre production.

One of these friends was a little-known artist, Hilda Quick. Born in 1895, she was the only child of a banker whose family had long been established in Penzance. Part of her childhood was spent in Falmouth, where her father became manager of Barclays Bank in 1906. During the First World War Hilda herself worked at Barclays, before becoming a student at the Central School of Art in London (now Central St Martins College of Art & Design). Here she was taught by the wood engraver Noel Rooke, who praised her work for its social realism. She then moved to Paris to focus on the study of illustration and wood engraving. During this period she produced illustrations of Normandy and Brittany, which were exhibited both in London and at Newlyn Art Gallery.

In the interim her parents had moved back to Penzance. Returning to the family home, Hilda began to work with Rowena Cade. The two friends collaborated on costume design, and Hilda’s skill at graphic reproduction found expression in the creation of wood engravings for the Minack Theatre programmes and posters. Her woodcut ‘Enter Caliban’ formed a striking image to publicise the 1932 production of ‘The Tempest’, which gained a favourable review in ‘The Times’.

Hilda and Rowena’s work promoting productions at the Minack continued for some years. They were also both on the Arranging Committee responsible for the Newlyn Art Gallery Loan Exhibition of 1936. Throughout the 1930s Hilda achieved commercial success with graphic work for magazines and books, most notably with her illustrations for ‘The Complete Works of Edmund Spenser’ published by the Shakespeare Head Press.

A lover of nature, she joined the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society in 1934. Her first book, ‘Marsh and Shore: Bird-watching on the Cornish Coast’, was illustrated with her wood engravings. It was published in 1948 and became a bestseller. Written in a lively style, its enthusiastic approach appealed to novices and experts alike.

Hilda was for many years an active member of the Penzance Orchestral Society, playing the violin. She was devoted to both her parents. Her father died in 1947 and after her mother’s death in 1951, Hilda moved to the Isles of Scilly. She settled at Priglis Cottage on the peaceful island of St Agnes, where she remained for the rest of her life. 

Her second book, ‘Birds of the Scilly Isles’ was published in 1964, illustrated with her line drawings. Hilda continued to produce wood engravings and illustrations of bird life until her death in 1978. In a posthumous review John Halkes, director of Newlyn Art Gallery at the time, declared himself ‘completely smitten’ by the quality of her work. In 1982 a touring exhibition of her woodcuts, illustrations and watercolours took place under the auspices of the Area Museum Council for the South West. The Central St Martins College of Art & Design has a collection of her work. A story panel at the exhibition centre at the Minack displays reproductions of her illustrations, and acknowledges her contribution to the early development of the theatre which has, over the years, grown into a unique and enduring cultural attraction.

This year’s season of summer plays at the Minack Theatre opens on 23 May.

Thanks to Melissa Hardie at for the use of archival material.

Thanks also to Phil Jackson of the Minack Theatre for permission to reproduce photographs and illustrations.

© 2011 Helen Hoyle



  1. Thanks, Helen, I really enjoyed this piece. Maybe I'll get to the Minack one day.
    love, Heather

  2. Thank you for letting me know about this amazing place.
    I hope I get to see a play there oneday.

    From Wendy LG

  3. Visited Minack today and grafic work of this artist exhibited there, for me, was the highlight.