Hill is born at Southampton, Hampshire on December 6, 1916, the son of a wealthy sugar trader. He first works as a theatre designer in Leningrad in the 1930s and later as an historian. In World War II he registers as a conscientious objector and works on a farm.
Hill’s long association with Ireland begins when he visits Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal to paint the portrait of the Irish American art collector Henry McIlhenny, whose grandfather had emigrated to the United States from the nearby village of Milford, and who subsequently made a fortune from his patent gas meter.
Hill begins to enjoy increased success as a portrait painter from the 1960s. His subjects include many notable composers, musicians, politicians and statesmen, such as broadcaster Gay Byrne, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and The Prince of Wales. He is also an enthusiastic art collector and traveller, with a wide range of friends such as Bryan Guinness and Isaiah Berlin. Greta Garbo visits Hill in the 1970s, a visit which forms inspiration for Frank McGuinness‘ 2010 play Greta Garbo Came to Donegal.
In 1981, he donates his home, St. Columb’s Rectory, near the village of Churchill, County Donegal, which he had owned since 1954, along with a considerable collection including work by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Georges Braque, Graham Sutherland, Anna Ticho and Jack Butler Yeats to the State.
An exhibition of his work and personal art collection can be seen at the House and associated Glebe Gallery at Churchill, near Letterkenny. Another collection of his work is held at Mottisfont Abbey. Many of his landscapes portray scenes from Tory Island, where he has a painting hut for years, and starts and then mentors the artists’ community there, teaching the local fishermen how to paint. This leads to the informal but busy “Tory School” of artists such as James Dixon and Anton Meenan, who find that they have the time to paint and use their wild surroundings as a dramatic subject.
Hill is made a CBE in 1997. A Retrospective exhibition is arranged for and by him at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1998. On January 13, 1999, he is made an honorary Irish citizen by the President of Ireland Mary McAleese.
Arthur Derek Hill dies at the age of 83 at a London hospital on July 30, 2000. He is buried in Hampshire in the South of England with his parents. Memorial services are held for him in Dublin at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, and his local Church in Trentagh, County Donegal.