Having started out in the 1920s painting a variety of subjects – landscape, interiors, nudes and still life – by the mid-30s, Hitchens had found his true subject: the landscape, or more precisely, the experience of being in a landscape. As we can see in John by Jordan, Hitchens wasn’t interested in a naturalistic rendering, but rather to capture the intensity of colour, form and movement of the surrounding woods. His painting was to be less about things seen, more about thing felt. As Hitchens himself described it, he wished his painting to function more as a kind of ‘visual music’.
In 1940, Hitchens’s studio in Hampstead was damaged by bombing and he decided, along with a then-pregnant Mollie, to move and live within his subject. Having lived initially in the caravan, they eventually added a low-slung studio and house and the view from this simple home became an abiding subject for the artist, as the informal structure of the hand-built made environment gave way to the organic structure of the woods beyond. Greenleaves was no doubt inspired by Bankshead, Winifred and Ben Nicholson’s own ‘back to basics’ retreat in the lea of Hadrian’s Wall, where Hitchens had stayed and painted in the mid-20s. And like Bankshead – which had a Mondrian hanging on the rough whitewashed walls – Greenleaves was also an experiment in a modern way of being and of seeing the world. Hitchens’s work is so beautifully painted (no-one in Modern British art quite lays paint on canvas like he does) and so effortlessly constructed that one sometimes forget how radical and essentially abstract his paintings are. John by Jordan is a perfect example of how Hitchens fuses both his image with its own manufacture, how the motif and brushwork co-exist in equilibrium. This is most clearly expressed in the figure of the mother and child, which is modelled almost entirely through the flow of the brush in a single colour, with only the occasional dash of red and a darker ochre tone adding a sense of light and shade. It was the abstract painter Patrick Heron, in his monograph on Hitchens, published in 1955, who first notes this quality of simultaneity in the artist’s works: the perfect balance between figuration and abstraction, with neither element dominant, so that we observe objects in his paintings – be they buildings, trees, figures even – as ‘existing in paint’.
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