In Focus: The garden paintings bursting with colour that defined the craft of Ivon Hitchens

It's 40 years since the death of Ivon Hitchens, and the painter is being honoured with exhibitions at the Garden Museum in London and Pallant House in Chichester. Charles Derwent takes a look at the artist's key works.

Writing in the Weekend Review in 1932, the painter Paul Nash touched on a problem that would haunt his artist countrymen for decades to come. How, Nash asked, was it possible to ‘go modern’ as well as still ‘being British’? The question was self-answering: it wasn’t.

Modernism, with a capital ‘M’, was International with a capital ‘I’. Still, with rare exceptions, Nash’s coevals set about squaring this circle and no one more avidly than Ivon Hitchens.

In 1936, four years after Nash posed his conundrum, Hitchens, living in Hampstead, painted a picture called Triangle to Beyond. Now in the Tate, it would be his most abstract work and his most Modern. Three years later, however, its maker performed a sharp volte-face.

In 1939, Hitchens bought six acres of woodland near Petworth in West Sussex and, the following year, he moved his young family there, first to a gypsy caravan and then a cobbled-together house-cum-studio called Greenleaves.

Here, for 40 years, he would paint local landscapes, woods, flowers. What could be more English than hornbeams, or less Modern? If Nash had shown that a choice was to be made between the two, then Hitchens, in leaving London, seemed to have opted for Britishness.

And yet, if his paintings were not International, they were deeply, if diffidently, experimental. This had been the case long before Sussex. At first glance, Garden Conservatory (1935), painted in Hampstead at about the same time as Triangle to Beyond, looks like a flower painting. It is. The horticulturally minded will spot poppy heads, lilies, nasturtiums. It’s a lovely work, but not, appearances to the contrary, a simple one.

In spatial terms, Hitchens refuses to let the eye settle. The lily to the right sits in the painting’s background, but its polleny anthers kick at the foreground like a dancer’s feet. The orange blob of a nasturtium presses up against the picture plane, its sketchy leaves indefinably behind. The work feels choreographed — ‘My pictures are painted to be listened to,’ Hitchens had said — and its dance plays off depth against width.

Garden Conservatory is ambiguous in other ways, too. Like an inside-out version of Matisse’s flower-papered rooms, the space Hitchens conjures is not quite natural nor manmade. His flowers are real enough, but painted indoors. The outdoors are often seen from inside, even when they are the woods around Greenleaves.

Sunflowers and Blue Jar by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Miss Elizabeth Watt 1989.

Sunflowers and Blue Jar by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Miss Elizabeth Watt 1989.

If the Sussex landscape was a source of vast inspiration to Hitchens, his paintings of it were more complex than they seem. Both Studio with Open Doors (1942) and Irises — Greenleaves (about 1952) conjure up a halfway-world, neither indoors nor out, romantic nor modern; neither abstract nor representational

The 20 or so works that are on show at the Garden Museum give us a Hitchens at home in this world; a rather larger exhibition, opening at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, on June 29, suggests how he got there.

One of the earliest works in this show is Triangle to Beyond, mentioned above; one of the last is Roof Painting nr. 2 (The View From My Roof nr. 2), made four decades later in 1977, two years before the artist’s death in Sussex. Much had happened between.

Roof Painting nr. 2 by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of private collection/Estate of Ivon Hitchens

Roof Painting nr. 2 by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of private collection/Estate of Ivon Hitchens

During the war, Hitchens fell foul of Kenneth Clark, who saw flowers and trees as lacking in rigour. Asked whether the man who painted them might not be given some official war work, Clark, who was in charge of dispensing it, sniffed that he might do ‘for some canteen mural’. He presumably ate his words when, a decade later, Hitchens represented Britain at the Venice Biennale.

Spring Mood No. II by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of Jonathan Clark/Estate of Ivon Hitchens

Spring Mood No. II by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of Jonathan Clark/Estate of Ivon Hitchens

For all that, his reputation remains clouded by prettiness: it is 40 years since the Royal Academy’s monograph Hitchens show, 30 since the Serpentine Gallery’s. This pair of fine exhibitions will help change that.

If Roof Painting is a beautiful work — and it is — it is something more as well. As Hitchens wrote to Herbert Read: ‘The essence of my theory is that colour is space and space is colour.’ He was right. It is his understanding of colour — what pulls the eye forward and pushes it back — that sets this work dancing, as dance it does.

Flowers by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of private collection/Estate of Ivon Hitchens

Flowers by Ivon Hitchens. Courtesy of private collection/Estate of Ivon Hitchens


‘Ivon Hitchens: The Painter in the Woods’ is at the Garden Museum in Lambeth until July 15 (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk) while ‘Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour’ is at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from June 29 to October 13 (www.pallant.org.uk).

 

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