We are grateful to the Estate of Ivon Hitchens for their kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
The year that Hitchens produced Spring Evening from a Roof
, 1956, was defined by professional success and person sorrow. The final illness and eventual death of his frail mother in November 1956 prevented Hitchens from travelling to Venice to see his well-received exhibition, alongside Lynn Chadwick, in the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. The British Council was approached by various European institutions to tour the show to other venues and, subsequently, Hitchens’s work was seen at the Weiner Sezession, Vienna, the Galerie Lenbach, Munich, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Deeply rooted in his environment, Hitchens’s output primarily consisted of landscapes, nudes, and still-lifes, often realised in series, alongside ambitious mural projects including for Cecil Sharp House and the University of Sussex. Looking down between chimneys over the landscape beyond, Spring Evening from a Roof
was painted from the unusual vantage point of the rooftop of Hitchens’s Sussex home. Hitchens lived and worked at Greenleaves, a house in the countryside surrounding Petworth from 1940 onwards when his Hampstead studio was destroyed during the WWII blitz, initially in a caravan he bought for £20 and then in a studio that he gradually transformed into a house. He rarely ventured far, making it abroad only six times during his life, and most of his painting was done within a few-hundred metre radius of his home. Rather than limiting him, this seclusion engendered a single-minded determination that was modern in its obsession. The painter Patrick Heron, a champion of Hitchens’s work from the younger generation, wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for the 1956 Venice Biennale show, “Hitchens is [the artist, Hans] Hartung plus Sussex” (Patrick Heron, ‘Introduction’ in Exhibition of works by Ivon Hitchens and Lynn Chadwick
, exh. cat., British Pavilion XXVIII Biennale, 1956, p. 8.). Hitchens’s very identity as an artist was intrinsically tied up with the landscape of Sussex.
Originating in the quintessentially English artistic tradition of uncovering human characteristics and emotion in the natural world, Hitchens belonged to a generation of modern British artists that seized and transformed this legacy. The landscape became the inspiration for avant-garde abstraction for Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – with whom Hitchens had stayed in Cumbria – whilst Paul Nash and Eileen Agar sought out found-objects, chance encounters, and the uncanny in British coastlines. Almost always working in situ, Hitchens sought a pantheistic union between artist and environment, a spark from which a painting, or series of paintings, could flourish: “Setting up canvas and box in all weathers, I seek first to unravel the essential meaning of my subject…and to understand my own psychological reactions to it.” (Ivon Hitchens in Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens
, 2nd ed., Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2007, p. 73.). Realised with broad swathes of paint, Hitchens captures a panoramic sky above in turquoise and inky blue, and the warm browns, ochres and greens of the forest below, with tree tops punctuating the horizon line. The two chimneys of the Greenleaves’ roof frame the picture, compositional anchors to the unfolding landscape below. Hitchens’ painting is about experience – the experience of changing seasons, of time passing, the constant evolution of a familiar environment: Hitchens “confronts the visual scene every time he sets brush to canvas…Every statement he makes on the canvas is wrenched direct from Nature.” (Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchens
, Penguin Books, 1955, p. 5.).