Don’t try to find a picture…

This may be a strange title for a blog post about art, but they are wise words from the sketchbook of British painter Ivon Hitchens.

Hitchens career spanned 6 decades and a large part of it was spent painting the landscape around his home deep in the trees in West Sussex.  His early output couldn’t be further removed from his last paintings as he developed and refined his style and technique from pure representation to abstraction.  Hitchens was influenced by and an admirer of the late 19th and early 20th century French painters, but it was the writings of Clive bell and Roger Fry about “significant form” which was to become his moment of epiphany, and caused him to create my favourite early work “Curved Barn” painted in 1922.  While still very much a representational image of a barn in trees, the stylised forms and flowing curves highlight his awareness of shape and form, something that was to become increasingly important during his career.

Curved Barn by Ivon Hitchens
1922, oil on canvas
postcard published by Pallant House Gallery

One of the things about Hitchens’ work that appeals to me, is the draughtsmanship evident in his paintings.  At first glance some of his paintings can appear to be the result of random and sometimes haphazard placing of a colour on a canvas, yet on closer inspection these images reveal themselves to have the depth and structure brought about by careful planning.  Much as I love Hitchens’ work, I have to confess that I do find much of his mid-career work to be a little on the drab side colour-wise.  He seems to have had a fixation with the most hideous ‘hospital green’, often teaming it with other equally drab greens and greys tempered with sienna, umber, ochre and ultramarine, which dominate his landscapes of the mid 20th century.  His floral works are a complete contrast, and are my favourite genre in Hitchens oeuvre. Hitchens said about his floral painting “one can read into a good flower picture the same problems that one faces with a landscape, near and far, meanings and movement of shapes and brushstrokes.  You just keep playing with the object.”

Flower Piece by Ivon Hitchens
1943, oil on canvas
postcard published by Pallant House Gallery and Museums Sheffield

The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex is the largest retrospective of Hitchens work since 1989, showing over 70 works, covering most subject matters from his well known landscapes, flowers and interiors to some figure studies which show a strong influence of Matisse ‘Odelisques’.  Personally, I don’t think figurative work was Hitchens’ forte.  Moving through the exhibition rooms the works chart his progress on the route from representation to abstraction, with a group of 3 paintings being the perfect illustration of this being ‘Outflow’ from 1961, ‘Divided Oak’, 1958 and ‘Spring Millpond’ from 1950/51.  I have listed them as they are hung on the gallery wall, but really they should be hung with ‘Outflow and ‘Millpond’ reversed so the viewer can get a real sense of the move from the representational to the abstract.

Hitchens painted the same scenery for decades, not to achieve the perfect representation, but to express the feeling and spirit of these places.  During the 1960’s Hitchens bought a seaside home in Selsey and this was to rejuvenate his palette, casting aside the drab blue-green-greys and introducing vibrant blues, yellows, red and white.  Huge blocks of spectacular sumptuous colour now filled his canvasses.  The exhibition closes with a quote from T S Eliot which acknowledges Ivon Hitchens’ singular vision through the decades – “in my end is my beginning” and chimes perfectly with Hitchens’ own words from one of his sketchbooks –

Don’t try to find a picture.  Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”.

Publicity material for the exhibition –
Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour
at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, UK
29 June to 13 October 2019

The Ivon Influence

“Who?” was often the response when I told friends about how excited I was about the plethora of art exhibitions devoted to the British painter Ivon Hitchens.  Now I can forgive those people who have no real interest in art beyond something colourful for the lounge wall for not knowing about Ivon, but those friends who are interested in art, many of whom also have degrees in Fine Art, not knowing who he was, is frankly disappointing.

I first came across Ivon and his work almost two decades ago when he had been dead for around 30 years.  It was one of Hitchens’ earlier works, ‘Curved Barn’ which drew my attention.  Painted in 1922, it shows a barn at Bex Mill near to Heyshott in West Sussex as a symphony of dynamic flowing lines and muted colour a kind of ‘abstract realism’ reminiscent of work by the Futurists, and Hitchens himself recalls being influenced by the French painter Andre Lhote. This painting can be seen at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, 

Red Roof Barn under Curved Tree after Ivon Hitchens
(by Gillian Collins, linocut)

Summer 2019 has definitely been the Summer of Ivon Hitchens with a small, but fascinating showing of some of this floral inspired works at The Garden Museum followed by a major retrospective of his work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, as well as THREE other West Sussex based commercial galleries held exhibitions devoted to Hitchens and those influenced by him.  NOTE: If you find abstract art is difficult to understand, here is an excellent (and brief) blog post from Pallant House Gallery to help demystify it https://pallant.org.uk/perspectives-how-to-understand-abstract-art-with-the-help-of-ivon-hitchens/?fbclid=IwAR09HvEq_Cy0LBfXxxVW12pHvdq2V-1X2-tOIVCEPhO-CpvTdLuMlWnaHoE

Probably the best show I have seen this year, this small exhibition showed 20 paintings by Hitchens in an intimate space set within the old church that houses the Garden Museum at Lambeth Palace.  On the day I visited there were only 2 other visitors in the gallery room and it was possible to get very close to each work and see the individual brushstrokes.  It was a magical and I felt, a quite moving experience being in the presence of these wonderful images painted so many years ago, but which still retain their vibrancy and vitality.

Of the independent gallery exhibitions the first I saw was at Petworth based gallery Kevis House, a small and pretty building located close to the historic market square along a cobbled lane.  This fascinating show featured four generations of the Hitchens family, his father Alfred, Ivon himself and then work by his son John and grandson Simon.  Walking round the gallery the work flowing between artists, it was clear that each artist from the Hitchens family,while having some vestige of influence from their respective fathers, had developed a personal style which was fresh and contemporary to the period in which they worked.  Alongside the Hitchens family work hung a selection of work by other contemporary artists who had been influenced by Hitchens including Emma Jamison, Tuema Pattie and the late Peter Iden

A short drive from Petworth is the stunning and tranquil rural location of Moncrieff-Bray Gallery who were also having a ‘Hitchens moment’.  This time the main focus was on John Hitchens, Ivon’s son.  It drew together a selection of work made between the 1960’s and the 1980’s through which it was possible to see a clear development of his landscape style from something akin to that of his father, to a much more economical, yet compelling style as seen in the 1977 painting “Earth, Air and Rain, Duncton Hill”.   Again, a selection of artists influenced by the Hitchens family were hung alongside work by John Hitchens, including Lucy Powell, Jemma Powell and Sarah Warley-Cummings.

The trio is completed by the Candida Stevens Gallery in Chichester.  This very ‘trendy’ looking white cube space was showing work by Ivon Hitchens and John Hitchens, with a couple of works by other notable 20th century artists Patrick Heron, Howard Hodgkin and Winifred Nicholson were also represented together with contemporary painter Lindy Guinness.  

Having seen the ‘satellite’ exhibitions, I have yet to see the Main Event at Pallant House Gallery.  I will be doing this over the next few weeks and will share my thoughts here.

Sadly, all of the work by Hitchens and the other artists I saw today is heavily copyrighted so I have no images to post here.  Because I like to see images with posts such as this, I have created two small paintings influenced by Ivon Hitchens, I hope you like them.  They are for sale if anyone is interested, contact me at gilliancollinsartist@gmail.com for details

Red poppies after Ivon
(by Gillian Collins, acrylic on paper)
Garden Border after Ivon
(by Gillian Collins, acrylic on paper)