Oil on canvas: 18(h) x 46(w) in /
45.7(h) x 116.8(w) cm
Signed lower left: Hitchens; signed, dated and inscribed on the artist’s label attached to the stretcher: "River" 1966 / by IVON HITCHENS / Greenleaves. Petworth Sussex
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IVON HITCHENS CBE
London 1893 – 1979 Petworth
Signed lower left: Hitchens; signed, dated and inscribed on the artist’s label attached to the stretcher: “River” 1966/ by IVON HITCHENS/ Greenleaves. Petworth Sussex
Oil on canvas: 18 x 46 in / 45.7 x 116.8 cm
Frame size: 25 x 53 in / 63.5 x 134.6 cm
Private collection, UK
It is impossible, on first looking at this radiant painting, not to be swept down the powerful diagonal, slanting from right to left, purple to black, to the bottom left-hand corner, where one is abruptly brought to a halt by bushes and trees. Facing one on the rebound is the equally uncompromising parallelogram of bright yellow shading into green, more or less in the centre of the picture. Only after these swift initial excitements can one change tempo and calmly explore the rest of the canvas, where one discovers a low waterfall, with distant poplars behind it, pouring into a pool that forms part of the river of the picture’s title.
This trick of diverting the viewer’s eye for as long as possible before allowing it to ‘enter’ the picture is one that Hitchens often plays, letting us feel that it is we who have made the discovery not he who has guided us to it.
The swiftly painted canvas has all the freshness and luminosity of a morning in spring but alla prima though it may be in execution, much planning will have preceded it: questions of balance and of colour shape in particular. The delicate silver willow leaves against the black background are answered by the blue-green cat’s paw marks in the upper right half of the picture; the purple horizontal on the right by the broad purple down-rush on the left, and so on. Such ‘musical’ elements of composition keep the eye perpetually inquisitive, perpetually on the move, until it has explored every square inch of the canvas, only to start all over again.
Reference to the willow leaves prompts a cautionary reminder: that it is pointless to try to identify every mark in the painting—that blob of yellow at the foot of the waterfall, for instance. Some marks are indeed representational in a short-hand manner, others are more abstract, more broadly suggestive. Hitchens gives only enough for the viewer to recognize a scene, then leaves it to him to relate it to something in his own experience. But he is equally concerned to create an abstract pattern of colour shapes aesthetically valid in its own right, without reference to what it may or may not represent.
Here we touch on a persistent concern of Hitchens’ later years, in fact two aspects of a single concern. He was worried that as more and more people led an exclusively urban existence they would cease to recognize the oblique allusions to nature in his ever more abstract paintings, and that the paintings themselves, losing touch with their origin in things seen in the real world, might become desiccated and lifeless. Fortunately, a painting like River lays such anxieties to rest. Its joyful symphony of colours gives immediate delight and “that blue all in a rush with richness” reminds us that “nothing is so beautiful as spring”.
Ivon Hitchens, Sussex River, near Midhurst, 1965
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
IVON HITCHENS CBE
London 1893 – 1979 Petworth
Sydney Ivon Hitchens was the only child of artist Alfred Hitchens and Ethel Margaret Seth-Smith, a talented amateur artist. Following his early education at Conamur School, Sandgate, Kent, Hitchens attended Bedales School, Hampshire from 1903 until acute appendicitis cut short his school days and sent him on a recuperative voyage to New Zealand. Hitchens’ art education began at St John’s Wood School of Art, London from 1911 and continued at the Royal Academy Schools from 1912-16. He returned to the RA Schools between 1918-19, following two years’ service in hospital supply during the First World War. Still not fully recovered from his youthful illness, Hitchens was declared unfit for active service in 1916.
After graduating from the RA Schools, Hitchens moved into a studio at 169 Adelaide Road, Hampstead in 1919 and later became part of a circle of avant-garde British artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson living in Hampstead in the 1930s. In 1920 he exhibited at the first exhibition of the Seven & Five Society, becoming a member that same year. Hitchens was elected a member if the London Artists’ Association in 1929, of the London Group in 1931 and of the Society of Mural Painters in 1937. The artist exhibited with the Leicester Galleries from 1940 until 1960, when he moved to the Waddington Galleries.
Hitchens married Mary Cranford Coates on 27th June 1935. He and his wife left London in 1940 with their only child, John, for a caravan at Greenleaves, Lavington Common near Petworth, Sussex, after a bomb landed next door to his Hampstead studio. For the next forty years, Hitchens’ six acres of woodland near Midhurst became his home, place of study and constant source of inspiration.
In 1951 the artist won a purchase prize at the Festival of Britain exhibition, 60 paintings for ‘51. Hitchens completed a mural at Cecil Sharp House, Regent’s Park Road in 1954, and installed another mural at University of Sussex in 1962. In 1956 the British Council arranged a retrospective exhibition of his work for the Venice Biennale. In 1957 Hitchens was created CBE. A major retrospective of Hitchens’ work was arranged by the Arts Council at the Tate Gallery, London in 1963. In 1979 a third retrospective exhibition was held at RA Diploma Galleries.
Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchens, The Penguin Modern Painters, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1955
Alan Bowness (ed.), with an introduction by TG Rosenthal, Ivon Hitchens, Lund Humphries, London, 1973
Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens, Andre Deutch, London, 1990
Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2007