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 historic new-build

At first sight Uppark House appears to be the perfect Georgian country mansion set in an open, elevated position commanding superb views across the South Downs.  But all is not as it seems.  The original house was built in the 1690’s and was remodelled in the early 1800’s.  It then stood for 175 years before a fire rampaged through the house in 1989 which destroyed most of the interior.  The house was painstakingly restored and reopened to the public in 1995 as the property seen today, which is basically a new-build of an early 19th century house.  Fortunately most of the downstairs furniture and objects were saved from the fire which started in the roof, and this items such as carpets, wall coverings and textiles which were not saved have been recreated.   Given this, the property keeps the lighting particularly low and interestingly, does not allow photography in the main part of the building, even without flash.

To be honest there is not a great deal to see at Uppark, the garden is very small and not terribly inspiring and the few ground floor rooms that are open are largely unremarkable, generally over filled with furniture.  Small laminated leaflets are available in each room to give the visitor some basic information and a ‘fun fact’ about key objects and some snippets of information about the previous owners, but there is no real attempt to draw out any particular theme or history, as is often the case with other NT properties. 

One area of interest is the basement which houses the wine/beer cellar, the housekeepers rooms, butlers pantry and a large scullery. 

Scullery

The original kitchens were not housed in the main part of the house and produce from these was transported along underground tunnels.  These tunnels are said to have inspired the author H G Wells when he wrote The Time Machine.  A claim to fame is that Wells’ mother, Sarah was the housekeeper at Uppark between 1880 and 1893.  Another interesting thing about the tunnels is that in one is stored what is probably the longest single section ladder in the world.

The longest ladder in the world

It is a shame that Uppark doesn’t really promote itself more vigorously, it was a well known party house in the early 19th century frequented by the Prince George (later King George IV who was a close friend of Harry Fetherstonhaugh, MP for Portsmouth and often described as a ‘witless playboy’. With provenance like this there is so much scope for imaginative and exciting displays and visitor experience programme.  Sadly, this is a  missed opportunity, not aided by the stewards on duty on the day of my visit who were to a man a miserable and unfriendly bunch.

20th Century Gothic

It’s been several years since I last visited Nymans Gardens, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I visited recently.  The weather wasn’t great, which was a shame for the middle of August, but although overcast, the rain did manage to hold off while I was there. 

The basic layout of the gardens hasn’t changed, but what had changed was the amount of activities there were available for children.  Nymans has lots of lovely wide open space which is ideal for children to run about in, and it was heartening to see that the team at Nymans has recognised that fact and come up with various garden activities including activity trails and games such as giant Jenga, skittles and croquet.  All this child friendly activity doesn’t detract from the formal garden areas where the interest is more adult orientated.  The Rose Garden had almost finished, with just a few blooms left, while the long border was looking suitably spectacular full of late summer flowers such as phlox, rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan), dahlias and sunflowers.

Wild meadow planting at Nymans Gardens

What had changed since my last visit was the house itself.  A charming country house dating back to the Regency period, the house was remodelled first by Ludvig Messel to reflect his Germanic roots, and later by his son and daughter-in-law Leonard and Maud.  Sadly, on the night of Leonard’s 75th birthday a fire broke out destroying much of the house, with only a small part being saved.  About half of the original property still stands a ruins giving the property a romantic, gothic feel . With only 4 or 5 rooms available to visitors, there was still plenty to see and helpful room guides were pleased to chat about the past occupants and to show interested visitors a selection of albums showing the house as it was before the fire which destroyed most of it and Messel family. The upstairs has now been turned in to a gallery space showing the work of a Polish artist, Mariusz Kaldowski  depicting views around the garden and estate.

The main room have been dressed out as the house would have been in the early-mid 20th century when the Messel family were in occupation.  One of the ‘funest’ things is the stage curtain surround that has been placed around the television set.  The Messel family were very keen on theatre. 

TV ‘Theatre’ (with another scary lady portrait above)

There are several portraits of quite scary looking females which sort of reminded me of Rebecca in the eponymous Daphne Du Maurier.  

One of several ‘scary’ looking female portraits wearing period costume

I was impressed with the small collection of blue and white china displayed in a side room, and had to laugh when, as I was leaving, a man entering remarked that I looked like I had escaped from the room – I was wearing a blue and white striped dress! 

Blue and White china display

Currently the property is trying to raise money to create a special garden in the ruins of the house left behind after the fire.  Some work has been carried out to make them safer, but general public access is not permitted.  The picture here shows the charred remains of the library of rare and specialist botanical books collected by Leonard Messel.  A fitting place to site a brand new garden.

Burned library at Nymans

I enjoyed my visit to Nymans, the property has undergone some changes which make a real difference to the visitor “experience” and the staff and volunteers I came across were all very friendly and knowledgeable. It’s a lovely place and I would thoroughly recommend it.

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)