Saturday, 21 September 2019


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”It’s not really the subject that truly interests me, but the many possible ways of expressing it”
- Ivon Hitchens

Ivon Hitchens was one of the Bright Young Things of British Modernism, hanging out in Twenties Hampstead with the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson as they plotted to reinvent British art. He’s chiefly known for landscapes, which is what we’ll concentrate on here.

’Curved Barn’ (1922, above) is one of many works which place a single building inside a natural setting. As is emphasised by the title, the barn roof is given quite an extensive curve in an environment where nothing seems straight. Nature essentially envelops the barn, a long branch stretching across the top of it. The barely differentiated greens and greys emphasise this, making all seem one undifferentiated growth. This nature isn’t expansive but confining.

But if the barn’s depicted as if part of nature, nature isn’t particularly naturalised. Though there’s a clear-cut sense of pictorial space (the tree trunk before the bushes, which are before the barn) there’s an undisguised artificiality. It could be a stage set or an illustration to a fairy story.

Compared it to ’Grey Willow By the Coast’ (1936) and all the works seem to have in common is an evocation of the English landscape in a restricted, rather sombre palette. Where ’Curved Barn’ is built up of gradated blocks of colour, ’Grey Willow’ is much more painterly. Something it needs to convey its point to us. The mist-shrouded landscape is barely any more recognisable than the two figures which approach. Paul Nash often painted the British landscape as unparseable, littered with strange and unyieldingly inscrutable objects. Hitchens goes a stage further, depicting it as undiscernible.

Everyone from the times talks of how those continental Modernist exhibitions, when first staged in London, packed a heady punch. Viewers emerged from them with their heads on at different angles. The challenge was always to absorb their developments without merely imitating them. One solution was to - somehow - Anglicise them. And there’s a British, rainy-day mysticism to this work.

Hitchens was like the anti-David Bomberg; rather than being transformed by the light of Palestine or the ruggedness of Spain he stuck obstinately to English landscapes for inspiration – thick, gladeless forests whose gloom the sun barely penetrates. He turned provincialism from restriction to identifying feature.

’Winter Stage’ (1936, above) is often regarded as a key work in Hitchens’ development. It’s not, the show informs us, the first to use the elongated landscape frame that soon became a staple of it. But, after ’Still Life’ (1932), it was the first use for a landscape painting. Its advantage is that the work can no longer be taken in at a glance, but needs to be scanned - as you would an actual landscape.

Curiously then the show then tells us almost the opposite, emphasising how its “divided vertically into three sections” as if we should see it as a triptych which happens to be joined together. Whereas what’s significant arrives when we join those parts together.

The object at a window was then a common composition in British Modernism, perhaps the closest you could get to en plein air painting without rain stopping play. Hitchens gives us two open windows for our money, both with objects before them. Unlike ’Curved Barn’ the work looks quite naturalistic. But at the same time it seems designed to screw with any separation between inside and outside.

Is that a window sill at lower centre? It seems to blend seamlessly into the forest behind it.If we look carefully into the ‘main’ forest, we can see at almost dead centre the angled roof and darkened doorway of another building. To the left of this, a cross also appears among the trees.

Hitchens extends this perspective through a smart use of shading. The colours are as dark and sombre as ever. But by lightening some of the foreground browns, to the point they almost but not quite border on white, he gains enough tonal variety to get his deep perspective.

It would be tempting to say this is a direct inversion of ’Curved Barn’, where the outdoors has now blended with the indoors. But it’s less about nature invading culture, the familiar Romantic trope of plant life recolonising a ruin, than suggesting the two exist in a more involved inter-relationship than we normally give credit to. (Sussex locals may also like to know this was painted in Ashdown Forest.)

Hitchens continued to work from nature, often travelling for miles to reach a favoured spot. Yet his work increasingly became abstractions from those scenes. See for example ’Tangled Pool’ (1946, above). There’s nothing wrong with this an approach, after all it’s the one Arshile Gorky took. Hitchens combined this with more visible paint strokes and an almost complete swapping-over of palette, where colours became vivid. The result is works like ’Arno II’ (1965, below).

Every so often, I start to wonder if that lowbrow guy who always asks “is that even art?” might not have a point after all. Is it really a painting, or just someone wiping clean their brushes? Let’s be clear… The least interesting thing about visual art to me is accomplishment, and I consider bizarre people’s veneration of ‘skill’ - which normally means lack of evidence of the painter’s hand. (“It really looks like a real dog!”, and so on.) But that had begun to be challenged by the Impressionists, a full century before. Elaborating the point to this extent seems like repeatedly underlining a sentence already written. You could say something similar about Frank Auerbach and Franz Kline, and in fact I already have.

Furthermore, the more elements you take from a work, the greater the significance that falls on those that remain. For example, colour. If it doesn’t require delicate brush strokes, ’Arno’ does need a strong colour sense. Something which scarcely matters with, say, Malevich whose colour sense was masterful. Whereas Hitchens’ is quite frankly lousy. Colours are slapped on like a kid in a sweetie shop, not knowing what goes where or when to stop.

If it doesn’t necessarily follow that abstraction loses your connection with landscape, that’s still exactly what happened with Hitchens. (Almost inevitably, this seems to be the period where he saw most acclaim. Equally inevitably, I found more than a few reviews on-line which enthused over this era.)

What could have caused such a decline? One possible answer is Modernism losing its cultural cutting edge by the post-war era, and so digging deeper into its formal devices - essentially collapsing in on itself. It became its own self-parody. But with Hitchens there may be something more specific. If he was one of the Twenties in-crowd, he was in particular a disciple of Ben Nicholson. Who had a similar trajectory, first absorbing Continental influences to find a very British take on Modernism - only to then succumb to mannerism and formalism.

The show valiantly attempts to make a virtue of this, telling us how Hitchens “brought continental colour to the English landscape.” And of course this pinpoints his exact failure. Restrict his palette, in the earlier works shown above, and he developed an exceptional talent for working within those limitations. Hand him the rainbow, and he literally painted himself into a corner. The post-war Hitchens is nothing but misapplied Matisse.

At which point all might seem lost. But, if he never got back to the level of the inter-war years and remained highly uneven, he still clambered some way out of this corner. ’November Revelation’ (1973, above) is formally similar to ’Arno II’, broad and boldly undisguised paint strokes. But its colour sense is more developed, setting dynamic strokes of crimson and orange against a steadier background of marine blues. Its ambiguous title, which could refer to a late Autumn scene or some more internal process, is perhaps significant. Now untethered to representation, Hitchens has come out the other end and is free to do things which could only be done in a painting.

“The essence of my theory”, he said, “is that colour is space and space is colour.” By which I think he means, the elements that make up a painting cannot be prised apart like engine parts. Those extended horizontal lines, for example, they couldn’t not be blue.

Hitchens had moved to a seaside location at Selsey. As his inspiration seems to have come from his local environment, and as I’ve already called those horizontal blues ‘marine’, the rest might seem to write itself. But that was in 1963, two years before ’Arno’, so if this was Selsey’s effect upon him it was very much a slow burn.

Equally, it could easily pass for an American Abstract Expressionist work. Except the dates don’t fit there either. That was a movement popularly known at the latest by the early Fifties. Hitchens was scarcely stumbling upon it in 1973. Perhaps he simply had his own internal processes to work through, falling into then climbing back up out of his own happy valley, which couldn’t be hastened along.

Coming soon (or possibly later): This mini-review, which has leaped between decades in a quite cavalier fashion was to be honest all I had time to type out today, so got promoted up the schedule. Normal tardiness in art show reviews is shortly to be resumed.


  1. Enjoyable and informative review, of someone I had not heard of but now find interesting; thanks :-)

    1. I'd only heard of Hitchens before because some are in the Pallant House's permanent collection. (Including 'Curved Barn'.)