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Why you should know about Ivon Hitchens
[ Essay )
Ivon Hitchens is arguably one of the most popular British artists of the 20th century, best recognised for his abstract landscape paintings that feature swathes of bright colour.
As the first major exhibition in 30 years opens at the gallery, here are five reasons why Ivon Hitchens is an artist you should know (and one reason why he’s so important to us!).
1. He invented a new landscape format.
One of the most iconic elements of Hitchens’ paintings is his use of an extended landscape format. He first experimented with this format in Winter Stage (1936), a large-scale work created using a horizontal double square format.
It was the first time this double square format had been applied in landscape painting. In Hitchens’ hands, this format encouraged the movement of the eye across the canvas from left to right. Hitchens’ appetite for this kind of experimentation was referred to by Patrick Heron in his 1956 monograph, in which he applauded Hitchens for “his extraordinary inventiveness before an unchanging subject”.
Links have since been made between Hitchens and the work of Peter Lanyon, whose reverence for the Cornish landscape at St Ives chimed with Hitchens’ love of Sussex. Some art historians have also suggested that Howard Hodgkin’s vividly coloured paintings (described by the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as existing on the “margin between representation and abstraction”) were a kind of continuation of Hitchens’ own abstracted landscapes.
The significance of Winter Stage was immediately recognised by the art world; it became the first of Hitchens’ works to enter Tate’s collection.
2. He was at the forefront of progressive art in the early 20th century.
Along with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Hitchens was at the cutting edge of early 20th century art. He was a founding member of the Seven and Five Society in 1919, which began as a traditional group but gradually evolved to become more modernist, culminating in the group organising Britain’s first all-abstract art exhibition in 1935. Hitchens was the sole member who remained a part of the society for the 16 years that it existed.
He also represented Britain at the 1956 Venice Biennale, the first chance for people outside of Britain to see a group of his paintings together. Amongst the 20 paintings he exhibited was Winter Stage, one of the key works featured in Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour.
3. He produced his most innovative work in our home county of Sussex.
After his London studio was bombed in 1940, Hitchens, his wife Mollie and baby son John moved to Sussex. They settled near Petworth, less than 15 miles from Chichester, first in a red travellers’ caravan, and later building a studio and then a house on the site known as Greenleaves. The rolling hills, woodland and heathland of the Sussex Downs became the artist’s new focus.
Although he tramped all over the countryside surrounding his home – through Didling, Iping Common, Heyshott, Cocking and Duncton, his primary focus was always the six acres of wooded garden at Greenleaves. Isolated from the immediate threat of war, Hitchens nevertheless remained at the forefront of artistic developments during this time.
4. He was powerfully influenced by music.
Music was vitally important to Hitchens work. In his 1956 article ‘Notes on Painting’ for Ark, the journal of the Royal College of Art he declared: “[…] the ‘visual sound’ is of the first and greatest importance. Without it the picture is useless. My pictures are painted to be ‘listened’ to”. Music provided a language that made sense to Hitchens – he used it to describe how he ‘composed’ his pictures with lively central mark-making, alongside areas of broad brushwork.
5. Rain or shine, Hitchens painted outdoors in all weathers.
Despite claiming that he felt the cold very easily, Hitchens never let the weather distract him from his painting. In all seasons, he would gather his sketchbook and painting materials and walk out into the countryside, mackintosh in hand in case the weather turned unpleasant. In particularly chilly weather, he would simply don an extra pair of trousers and carry on as planned. If he wanted to paint a particular spot, he would bundle his canvas, paint and equipment into a wheelbarrow and set out across the hills and woodland.
And one reason why we like him so much…
1. He gave Pallant House Gallery its first two artworks.
Just before his death in 1979, Hitchens donated his paintings Curved Barn (1922) and November Revelation (1973). It would still be a few years before Pallant House Gallery opened to the public, but his donation was a powerful gesture of support for what was then just an idea of a gallery, as well as an indication of how much he loved this area of Sussex.
Both of these works have become much loved parts of the collection and can usually be found on display in the gallery. They are also key works in the exhibition Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour.