The Still Life Work of Ivon Hitchens

Ivon Hitchens was born into an artistic family and studied at St John’s Wood School of Art and the Royal Academy where Clausen and Sargeant were among his teachers. Along with contemporaries Ben Nicholson, John Piper and Barbara Hepworth, he joined the Seven and Five Society and the London Group in the 1920s, both of which declared a firm position away from the artistic mainstream of the time. Hitchens had a quiet demeanour but maintained close contact with his contemporaries, holidaying with the Nicholsons, Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping and exhibiting with Victor Pasmore and Ceri Richards. He did, however, prefer the quiet surrounds of East Sussex to the hustle and bustle of London. Marrying Mary Cranford Coates in 1935, the war forced him to leave London in 1939 and he bought a caravan and six acres of woodland at Lavington Common near Petworth, East Sussex, whilst keeping his Hampstead Studio. The following year a bomb damaged that and the Hitchenses moved permanently to Lavington Common, retaining the caravan which later on in his life served as guest living quarters. It was in the mid to late 1930 that Hitchens departed from his experiments with reductive abstraction to evolve his own personal style of abstract figuration. 

Ivon Hitchens | A still from the film Ivon Hitchens 'Encounter in the Woods', 2014

In art historical terms, the biggest influence felt in Hitchens’ work is that of Cezanne. Not only did he find Cezanne’s approach to deconstructing the motif helpful to his own work but in the same way that Cezanne was able to paint his own artistic vision of Provence, Hitchens dedicated much of his career to depicting his beloved East Sussex. His approach to painting is enormously indebted, as with the majority of twentieth century artists to Cezanne’s insistence on conveying the underlying structure of his motif.  The viewer is always aware of the backbone of the subject matter and how all components fit together. 

The vast majority of the Hitchens’ large output is painted on canvases  of three sizes, in narrow long , a ‘Cinematoscope’ shape. Hitchens did have a somewhat prevailing obsession with painting the Sussex landscape, but he did depart from that to paint the nude and some impressive still lifes, the present canvas being a splendid example. In a conversation with T G Rosenthal, he stated:

"I love flowers for painting. One can read into a good flower picture the same problems that one faces with a landscape, near and far, meaning and movements of shapes and brush strokes. You keep playing with the object." 

British Paintings Ivor Hitchins

IVON HITCHENS (BRITISH 1893-1979) 
STILL LIFE 

Signed and dated '32, oil on canvas 
61cm x 51cm (24in x 20in) 
Sold for £79,250 (buyer's premium included)

The flowers appear to have been posed in the artist’s home in East Sussex. The fragmented blue structure on the left is probably a window whereas the unusual dark shape on the right is a fireplace. 

Hitchens’ painting style can be described as highly selective, with economical brushstrokes, long sweeping lines of paint and a delicate balance between light and shade, substance and void. He describes his approach to painting volume and space as such:

"I am really only interested in the structure of the three-dimensional canvas – the visual structure...It’s really converting the current distance of reality, near and far and half-way, into two dimensions so that only as your eye travels around the passage, the two dimensional passage, dark to light and light to dark, warm to cool, cool to warm or broad up to narrow – as it travels along those things – so it suddenly subconsciously finds that it’s doing something in depth as well."

In a conscious effort to distract the viewer from immediately and instinctively seeking a recognizable figurative pattern, a conventional three dimensional object, Hitchens paints in a way which first demands that we explore the two dimensional canvas: the juxtaposition of cool and warm shades, light and dark tones, a variety of edges, textures and organic lines. Then and only then do we identify the flowers bowing their heads towards the viewer, perhaps the blue sky seen through a window on the left. It is not three-dimensional shading that conveys the presence of the flowers in conventional perspective but rather the layering of fields of colour one on top of each other that implies recession into space. The compositional elements in this flower piece take on a general structural role, and Hitchens, not unlike Cezanne, blurs the lines between still life and landscape, the area on the left becomes a general sign for the sky whereas the dark linear shape on the right could be a wall by a country lane or a fence. 

Unlike that of some of his contemporaries, Hitchens’ work did not undergo dramatic shifts in style or subject matter so that after he synthesised his approach by around the early to mid 1930s his works can be difficult to place precisely within a chronology. 

 

British Paintings Ivor Hitchins

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Published: 28 November 2014

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