Rachel West explores the life and work of artist Ivon Hitchens and gives her thoughts on the the Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour exhibition at Lakeside Arts.
On entering the first room of the Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour exhibition, one is confronted with a real artistic mélange: soft landscape paintings are juxtaposed with the almost video game-like, black-outlined Curved Barn (1922).
These precede bright, patchwork studies of Barmoor Castle, pastel still-lifes and a perspective-challenging depiction of nude figures around a pool. And tying all of these isolated exploits together is a glass case in the middle of the room showcasing photographs of the man himself and his comrades, including luminaries of English modernism Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.
This room is Hitchens shaking your hand and telling you where and how it all began. And how did it all begin? With what Laura Freeman, in her review for The Spectator, rather harshly refers to as Hitchens’ “have-a-go 1920s”.
Born in London in 1893, the only child of landscape painter Alfred Hitchens and amateur artist Ethel Margaret Seth-Smith, Hitchens was perhaps always destined for the art world. However, interrupted by the First World War, it was not until 1919 that Hitchens, at the age of 26, completed his formal art education at the Royal Academy Schools.
Two years later, he exhibited his work for the first time as part of the Seven & Five Society – a co-operative of artists formed in 1920, originally named as such because seven painters and five sculptors intended to form the group – of which he was a founding member. It was during this interbellum period that Hitchens matured as an artist, developing his style and experimenting with subject matter (hence the ‘mélange’ of room one).
“If the first room is Hitchens shakily picking up the paint brush, then the final room is him putting it down with self-assured conviction.”
Moving into the second room, a real progression from his somewhat scattered beginnings can be seen, and, more importantly, felt. The often-outlined mint greens and unintrusive purples become mud browns, earthy greens and murky, mysterious blues.
The most acclaimed of this series was Winter Stage (1936). A rectangular canvas sprawls out horizontally, immediately marking a break from Hitchens’ ‘20s, and providing the basis for a dark woodland scene. We, as the spectator of the painting, are standing in a conservatory-like room.
A cream-coloured structure arches over us, and links thinly painted windows to our left and right. The structure seemingly defies regularity, with triangular spaces either side of a path leading us straight into the centre of the scene, into the outside world, testing our notions of interior and exterior. We are led toward a tree taking centre stage, significantly brighter than its allies – perhaps this pastel green form is a swansong to Hitchens’ 1920s colour palette?
“There is a special treat for the persevering gallery visitor right at the end, in the form of a glass case full of Hitchens’ notebooks. “
Winter Stage is a prequel to a series of similarly painted woodland scenes, including House with Blue Door, among Trees (1942) – produced after Hitchens relocated to Sussex due to the war. Often the painting titles provide guidance where the monotone planes of colour and the mishmash of brush stroke angles and textures refuse to.
But why this style? Because, inspired by Clive Bell’s theory of “significant form”, i.e. ‘a combination of lines and colours’ as well as ‘aesthetically moving forms’, Hitchens was on a quest not to artistically represent nature, but to represent his emotional reaction to nature. Thus, he became ‘the most distinguished example of… profound personal identification, of a painter with a special place or landscape,’ in the words of fellow artist Patrick Heron.
Like many other artists, Hitchens was not close-minded. Alongside his landscapes, Hitchens continued to create studies of the human form and flowery still lifes – a salute to artistic traditions, yet portrayed using the same dreary colour palettes that characterised his work of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
As well as this, Hitchens experimented with abstract pieces, such as Triangle to Beyond (1936), possibly propelled by the abstract direction Nicholson had taken the Seven & Five Society in the 1930s.
All of this experience culminates in the final room of the exhibition: the 1950s and 1960s, by which time Hitchens’ work was receiving increased critical attention. If the first room is Hitchens shakily picking up the paint brush, then the final room is him putting it down with self-assured conviction.
His abstract attempts, landscape mastery and the observation skills likely learned from his still lifes all climax in pieces such as Spring Mill Pool (1950-51), November Revelation (1973) and his Sussex Canal series.
And (spoiler alert) there is a special treat for the persevering gallery visitor right at the end, in the form of a glass case full of Hitchens’ notebooks. Endless sketches give a rare insight into his vision and reveal the meticulous planning behind each scribble and smudge of paint. A true master of the perfectly imperfect.
The Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour exhibition is at the Djanogly Gallery at Lakeside Arts until Sunday 23rd February. Free entry. Gallery opening times: closed Mondays, Tuesday- Saturday open from 11am-5pm; Sunday 12-4pm. Visit their website for opening times over the Christmas period.
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Featured image courtesy of Rachel West. All images in the article also courtesy of Rachel West.
 Bell, C. Art (1914)