Ivon Hitchens 1893-1979


Private Collection and thence by descent
Ivon Hitchens was born in London in 1893, the only son of the painter Alfred Hitchens and his wife Ethel. After attending Bedales School, Hitchens studied first at St John’s Wood Art School in 1911 and then the Royal Academy Schools from 1911-12, again from 1914-16 and finally 1918-19. Hitchens was elected a member of the newly-formed Seven and Five Society in 1920, exhibiting in all its exhibitions until 1935: he would also be an elected member of the London Artists’ Association, the London Group, and the Society of Mural Painters. Loosely associated in London with Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth, Hitchens left behind the intellectual milieu of London for the, primarily self-imposed, isolation of West Sussex in 1940 – a move precipitated by the destruction of his Hampstead studio during the early stages of the Blitz. Hitchens would remain in Sussex until his death in 1979.

Deeply rooted in his environment, Hitchens’s output primarily consisted of landscapes, nudes, and still-lifes, often realised in series, alongside ambitious mural projects including for Cecil Sharp House and the University of Sussex. Hitchens had numerous solo exhibitions throughout his career including three retrospectives at the Royal Academy, and at the Serpentine and the Tate. He represented Britain at the 1956 Venice Biennale and he was made a CBE two years later. His work is held in international public and private collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, the Tate, the Courtauld Institute Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

1956, the year that Hitchens painted 'Farm House', was defined by personal sorrow and professional success. The final illness and eventual death of his frail mother in November 1956 prevented Hitchens from travelling to Venice to see his well-received exhibition, alongside Lynn Chadwick, in the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. The British Council was approached by various European institutions to tour the show to other venues and, subsequently, Hitchens’s work was seen at the Weiner Sezession, Vienna, the Galerie Lenbach, Munich, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Working with a cacophony of colour and texture, Hitchens seems to encompass within 'Farm House' the full gamut of emotion and experience, filling the picture with an abundance of expressivity.

The title of the painting, 'Farm House', indicates its genesis in the rural setting of West Sussex, specifically the area around Petworth where Hitchens lived and worked from 1940 onwards. Hitchens rarely ventured far – he only made it abroad six times during his life – and most of his painting was done within a few-hundred metre radius of his home. Rather than limiting him, this seclusion engendered a single-minded determination that was potently modern in its obsession. The painter Patrick Heron, a champion of Hitchens’s work from the younger generation, wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for the 1956 Venice Biennale show, “Hitchens is [the artist, Hans] Hartung plus Sussex” (P. Heron, ‘Introduction’ in Exhibition of works by Ivon Hitchens and Lynn Chadwick (British Pavilion XXVIII Biennale, 1956), p. 8.). Hitchens’s very identity as an artist was intrinsically tied up with the landscape of Sussex.

Originating in the quintessentially English artistic tradition of uncovering human characteristics and emotion in the natural world, Hitchens belonged to a generation of modern British artists that seized and transformed this legacy. The landscape became the inspiration for unabashed abstraction for Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – with whom Hitchens had stayed in Cumbria – whilst Paul Nash and Eileen Agar sought out found-objects, chance encounters, and the uncanny in British coastlines. Almost always working in situ, Hitchens sought a pantheistic union between artist and environment, a spark from which a painting, or series of paintings, could flourish: “Setting up canvas and box in all weathers, I seek first to unravel the essential meaning of my subject…and to understand my own psychological reactions to it.” (I. Hitchens in P. Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens (2nd ed., Lund Humphries, 2007), p. 73.). Whilst Hitchens’s paintings evidently straddle the divide between figuration and abstraction, he, as Heron argued, “confronts the visual scene every time he sets brush to canvas…Every statement he makes on the canvas is wrenched direct from Nature.” (P. Heron, Ivon Hitchens (Penguin Books, 1955), p. 5.).

Belying the appearance of expressive spontaneity, Hitchens’s paintings were founded upon a rigorously constructed theoretical framework of “seven main principles…: opposition, transition, subordination, rhythm, repetition, symmetry and balance.” (I. Hitchens in P. Khoroche, p. 84). Hitchens would begin a work such as Farm House with a sketch in paint, then a detailed plan – each, in turn, destroyed - before starting afresh on a clean canvas. Though theory and preparation underwrote Hitchens’s practice, the individual work could only emerge through “growing with its own personality to the painter’s creative thought…” (I. Hitchens in P. Khoroche, p. 53). Hitchens favoured narrow rectangular canvases as with 'Farm House', believing the format could convey the sensation of passing time, what he called ‘eye-music’ as the picture unravelled across the canvas before the viewer’s eye.

Though Hitchens often left remnants of bare canvas in his finished pictures, 'Farm House' bears no such blank fissures. Instead it is densely packed, an exuberant proliferation of multifarious colour, form, texture and brushwork. As opposed to the restraint of distinct, flat planes of colour seen in 'Boathouse', 1956; Fitzwilliam Museum, Hitchens unleashes an abundance of forms that impinge and interject one another A particular strain of lavender reverberates throughout the painting, punctuating the canvas with tonal clarity amidst the vibrant autumnal palette. Brushstrokes are applied in any and every direction with flurries of animation. Broad streaks of paint laid with determination are overlaid by single-stroke flourishes. In its richness, its profusion of plenty, and sheer pleasure in surface and colour, 'Farm House' is Hitchens at his most luscious. Expanding upon Hitchens’s oft-repeated comparison between his paintings and music, critic J Wood Palmer stated in 1961 that, “These are paintings that must be watched in silence for a very long time. They are not easily to be discovered because they are the singer even more than the song.” (J. Wood Palmer, ‘Foreword’ in Three Masters of Modern British Painting (ex. cat. The Arts Council, 1961), p. 3). If Hitchens’s paintings are singers, 'Farm House' is a choir of many voices.