Signed ‘IH’ & dated lower right ‘1974’
Oil on canvas
PROVENANCE : Artist’s Estate
EXHIBITED : Probably shown at Waddington in 1976.
RELATED TO : Sybilline Courtyard, 1974, Courtauld Gallery, London
Canvas height 122 cm., 48 in., Length 89 cm, 35 in
In a black and gilded frame. Frame height 148.5 cm., 58 ½ in., 116 cm., 45 ½ in.
‘I paint life as I see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, and think it – but above all see it……my pictures are painted to be listened to.’
Whilst the title Windermere appears to refer to the town/lake in Cumbria, the nature of this work is a fundamentally abstract floral composition. The use of a broad range of bright colours recalls another predominant theme in Hitchens’ late oeuvre, still-life and flower compositions. The motif on the top left of the picture, in red and purple, evokes the shape of a flower, perhaps a rose while the small shapes in the lower part of the picture recall fruits or objects from a still-life. The tones of these objects are then recalled again in the colour patches that Hitchens uses to frame the picture. The recourse to repetition is typical of Hitchens’ use of a painterly language that recalls musical abstraction.
Throughout his career Hitchens had frequently referred to his painting in musical terms. As early as 1933 he had declared his interest in the ‘musical appearance of things’ rather than their solid external reality. For example here, his division of the canvas into segments can be seen as a parallel to musical rhythms and variations. In late works such as this, his use of heightened colour comes closest to musical abstraction.
Also, fellow painter Patrick Heron argued that, across these Hitchens’ canvases, ‘colour is light, and light is space’, giving his work the illusion of a further dimension beyond the usual two of painting.
IVON HITCHENS (1893-1979)
Ivon Hitchens was the pioneer of the abstracted vision of the landscape that is one of the key ideas of British Modernism in the 20th Century. He was a founder member of the Seven & Five Society, the influential group of painters and sculptors, that was responsible for bringing the ideas of the European avant-garde to London in the 30s.
Hitchens became part of the circle of artists known as the London Group. Hints of his mature style can be found in his work from as early as the 1930s, which was influenced by Braque, but he also experimented with pure abstraction, as in his work Coronation (1937; London, Tate). After his house was bombed in 1940 he moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth, W. Sussex, living at first in a caravan which later acquired numerous outbuildings. He worked there for the next 40 years, distanced from the predominantly literary currents of British modern art. In his commitment to colour and open brushwork he was closer to the modern French masters, especially in his Fauvist orange nudes set in sunlit interiors. He painted mostly outdoors, however, and his technique developed from a tonal treatment that recalled the informality of Constable’s sketches.
Hitchens neither painted landscape as a detached observer, nor did he abstract forms from nature, and he valued the disciplines of Cézanne too highly to allow structure to be controlled by subjective response alone. His output was prodigious, but of uneven quality. The freshness of colour in the paintings of his last years could either burst open in glorious flourishes, or lie dormant in secretive greys. He was an isolated figure but his art was never eccentric.
Hitchens’ works can be found in many museums and public collections including the Tate and the Courtauld Gallery, in the United States, in the Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo , Seattle Art Gallery, California and the Centre for British Art, Yale, New Haven, Connecticut.
Works in museums and public collections – UK
Abbot Hall Art Gallery
Barnsley: Canon Hall Museum and Art Gallery
Bath Art Gallery
Bedford: Cecil Higgins Museum and Art Gallery
Belfast: Ulster Museum
Birmingham: City Museum and Art Gallery
Bradford City Art Gallery
Brighton Art Gallery
Bristol Art Gallery
Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum
Cardiff: National Museum of Wales
Chichester: Pallent House Gallery
University of Chichester
Eastbourne: Towner Art Gallery
Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Glasgow School of Art
Harrogate Art Gallery
Huddersfield Art Gallery
Horsham District Council
Kettering Art Gallery
Kingston-upon-Hull: Ferens Art Gallery
Leamington Spa: Warwick District Council Art Gallery
Leeds: City Art Galleries
Leicester: City Museum and Art Gallery
Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery
London: Courtauld Institute Galleries
Royal Academy of Arts
Victoria and Albert Museum
Manchester: City Art Galleries
Whitworth Art Gallery
Middlesborough Art Gallery
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Laing Art Gallery
Norwich: Castle Museum
Nottingham: Castle Museum and Art Gallery
Oxford: Ashmolean Museum
Rochdale Art Gallery
Rugby Art Gallery
Salford Art Gallery
Sheffield Art Gallery
Shrewsbury Art Galleries
Southampton Art Galleries
Swansea: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery
Swindon Museum and Art Gallery
Wakefield: City Museum and Art Gallery
Findon Worthing Museum and Art Gallery
Works in museums and public collections – Overseas
Australia Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Canada Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal
National Gallery of Ottawa
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Art Gallery of Vancouver France Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris
New Zealand Bishop Suter Art Gallery, Nelson
National Gallery of New Zealand, Wellington
Norway National Gallery, Oslo
South African Art Gallery, Natal
Sweden Gothenburg Art Museum
United States Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
Smith Art Museum, Northampton, Massachusetts
Seattle Art Gallery
Centre for British Art, Yale, New Haven, Conn.
Ivon Hitchens thought that ‘art is not reporting. It is memory.’ He distrusted the theoretical wordiness of the 1930s London art world, and more or less left it for good during the Blitz in 1940, moving to Petworth, West Sussex, where the caravan next to his studio grew into Greenleaves, a large, white, one-storey home. The writer John McEwen remembered that there, flowers seem to grow on through the rambling house which was built up, room by room, over the years. Rhododendrons and bracken filter the light. At the end of tunnelled walks you glimpse the Downs and sky. There are fir trees and fine old Deciduous trees – oaks and gnarled Spanish-chestnuts.
Hitchens spent the rest of his life painting the endless combinations of light, leaf, and water that the few square miles around Greenleaves threw up, occasionally stopping for still-lifes, or nudes when he managed to get models up from London. Even then, he complained to Alan Bowness how impossible it is to explain to them why he has to desert them in a probably under-heated studio, because he has just seen a new conjunction of hitherto familiar landscape through the window and must abandon the girl, at least temporarily, in order to record it before the memory fades.
The 1956 Biennale represented a career based almost entirely on these memories, generally transferred to long, rectangular canvases. In Notes on Painting, published that year, he explained that in landscape I find a square-shaped painting usually unsatisfactory[…]I like my long shapes, so that I can ‘move’, so that one half or part reacts against, while furthering the purpose of, the other.
Hitchens often said ‘my pictures are painted to be listened to.’ As the eye moves along them lengthwise, he thought of this as a movement in time; a dimension that doesn’t usually come into painting, but structures music. Also, fellow painter Patrick Heron argued that, across these canvases, ‘colour is light, and light is space’, giving his work the illusion of a further dimension beyond the usual two of painting.
This dimensional way of thinking can be traced back to Arthur Dow’s Composition (1899), a manual on painting he was introduced to in the ’20s. The book stressed the importance of structure and design, and compared music and art around the same time as Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which had been translated by Edward Wadsworth in 1914.
Dow had picked up an interest in Eastern forms and artistic principles from the Oriental enthusiast and philosopher Ernest Fenollosa. The one that excited Hitchens was notan, a Japanese principle of beauty that translates as ‘dense-sparse’. Not to be confused with chiaroscuro – which is ‘the literal representation of dark and light as seen in nature’ according to Khoroche – notan refers to tone design in a picture; the kind that might use a colour wheel.
Some of the musical influence on his work can also be traced to his wife Mollie, a pianist, and ‘the making of him’, as, McEwen remembers, ‘he kept pointing out. He was an interesting and active artist before he met her, but he had not found his true way.’
Hitchens had been part of London artistic life before this watershed, having been born into it. His father Alfred’s paintings and drawings had won gold medals in national competitions, and been chosen to exhibit at the Royal Academy. Once, baby Ivon had posed as the infant Jesus; another time had managed to smear paint on a canvas about to be sent to the Academy. Bedales School was his introduction to the Hampshire and Sussex countryside of his later paintings, but his education was interrupted by acute appendicitis. Although his parents tried to cure him with a trip to Australia, here began a lifetime of delicate heal that ruled him out from service in WWI, and had him dressed in ‘multiple layers of warm clothing even in summer’ according to Tom Rosenthal.
On his return, he went St John’s Wood Art School, and fulfilled his infant ambitions by studying in the Royal Academy Schools from 1912 to 1916 and in 1918–19; the connections he picked up got him elected a member of the hugely influential Seven & Five Society in 1920. The group, of which Hitchens could be considered ‘a key member’ according to Andrew Causey, promoted ‘stable, middle of the road modernism’, much like the London Group, which he resigned from in 1961. The Seven & Five took its name from its originally-intended membership numbers – seven painters, five sculptors.
At this point, he was living, slightly uneasily, in what Herbert Read called the ‘nest of gentle artists’ in Hampstead, which included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson. There’s a photograph of the artists on holiday in Norfolk in 1931 that, for Khoroche, explains Hitchens’s position: ‘at the party but not of it’. Whilst Moore and Nicholson relax on the beach with their shirts off, and Hepworth in the 1930s equivalent of a vest top, Hitchens stands hypochondriacally at the side, in (at the very least) shirt, tie, jumper, suit jacket and beret. But, at one of these parties, he met a clairvoyant who predicted that ‘in due time he would live, happy and famous, in a white house surrounded by trees.’
Hitchens didn’t join Paul Nash’s Unit One collective, but, in 1934, exhibited at London’s Zwemmer Gallery with painters including Victor Pasmore, and Ceri Richards. This group, Objective Abstractions, aimed for abstract paintings ‘objectively’ free of reference to subject matter, and focusing instead on process. The next year, the Seven & Five disbanded, and he married Mollie. Gradually, from when he was bombed out of Hampstead and into Greenleaves in 1940, ‘isolation, from being a wartime necessity, became a habit and then a personal need.’
The Biennale selection arrived in a busy decade, helped along by the patronage of Howard Bliss, whom he had met in 1944. As well as major exhibitions in London and Sheffield, from 1950-4 he was working on a huge mural for London’s Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and in 1955, Patrick Heron’s Ivon Hitchens volume of the important Penguin English Painters series was published. Despite Hitchens’s reserve, and reclusiveness, Heron described his work as an ‘instinctive, passionate, and sensuous’ contrast to the ‘basically puritanical’ majority of modern British art, and art writing.
The next year, Heron wrote the catalogue entry for Hitchens’s Biennale show, and the ‘lone figure in British painting’ was revealed to a global public for the first time. The Venetian light brought out the ‘notan-beauty’ of the twenty oil landscapes and flower paintings shown in the Pavilion, and there was sufficient interest to send them on a tour of Vienna, Munich, Paris, and Amsterdam.
Hitchens was at home nursing his dying mother during the Venice show, but went to Paris, although he spent most of the trip ill in his hotel room.
Ever shy of gangs, he twice turned down nomination as a Royal Academician, but accepted a CBE in 1958, a major Arts Council retrospective at the Tate in 1963 and an RA retrospective in 1979. And, sticking to his policy in Notes on Painting – ‘I paint life as I see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, and think it – but above all see it’ – he made his last painting on the 17th of July that year, and died at Greenleaves on the 29th of August.
Ivon Hitchens, ‘Notes on Painting’, Ark: Journal of the Royal College of Art, No.18, 1956.
Alan Bowness, ed., Ivon Hitchens [exh. cat.](London: Lund Humphries, 1973).
Alan Bowness, ‘Introduction’, in Ivon Hitchens: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat, (London: Arts Council, 1963).
Andrew Causey, ‘Seven & Five Society (act. 1919–1935)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., (Oxford: OUP 2008), accessed 5th January 2009.
Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchens (Penguin Modern Painters)(London: Penguin, 1955).
Patrick Heron, ‘Ivon Hitchens’, in The British Pavilion: Exhibition of works by Ivon Hitchens, Lynn Chadwick et. al. [exh. cat.] (London: British Council, 1956).
Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007).
John McEwen, ‘Ivon Hitchens’ in Ivon Hitchens: Paintings from 1930-1974, exh. cat., (London: Waddington Galleries, 1982).
T. G. Rosenthal, ‘Hitchens, (Sydney) Ivon (1893–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., (Oxford: OUP, 2004), accessed 6th January 2009.
This post was written by joecollinson