Modern & Post-War British Art

Discoveries: A Vibrant Painting by Ivon Hitchens

By Mark Stephen

A recent discovery submitted via the online valuation request platform was a vibrant oil painting by the English artist Ivon Hitchens, which features as a highlight of the Modern & Post-War British Art Day Sale on 13 June.

A leading figure within the Seven and Five Society, alongside the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, in 1940 Hitchens and his family evacuated their bombed-out London home for Lavington Common near Petworth in Sussex, buying a plot of woodland and a gypsy caravan. It was not an easy life, lacking running water and electricity, and the first thing he needed to do was to build a studio which then doubled as a bedroom for his wife Mollie and son John. But despite deprivations in his personal life, his art flourished

The woods there became both his inspiration and the main subject of his art and we all know and recognise his typical landscapes, in proportion unusually wide, painted with a balanced flow of strong colours and shapes so they create a harmonious rhythm. His work was characterised by vigour and energy with an instinctive feel for colour. Hitchens was influenced in particular by Matisse and the Cubist Georges Braque. He wrote that his new ‘more settled life, with permanent roots in this soil, has led to a deeper search for the more abstract elements of a given subject’.  His painting was to be less about things seen, more about thing felt. As Hitchens himself described it, he wished his painting to function as a kind of ‘visual music’.

One series of paintings from the early years at Lavington Common were portraits of his wife and son, painted with tenderness and intimacy such as Boy in Bed, 1943 in the Tate, and the present example. The title John by Jordan originating from the family nickname for their tin bath `Jordan’ from the biblical river Jordan. Here the seated couple are depicted outside amongst ferns and bracken, with typical bold patches of colour which complement each other and act to harmonise the composition. The painting balancing abstraction and figurative painting as only Hitchens could. 

The history of the painting is interesting, as after being sold by the Leicester Galleries, it made its way to the company British American tobacco, probably during the stewardship of the chairman Sir Duncan Oppenheim who was a great supporter of modern art, combining his job as chairman of BAT, with that of Chairman of the Council of the Royal College of Art where he would have met and worked with a wide assortment of British artists, and also advisor to the government on paintings for display in ministries and embassies abroad.  Moreover, he also painted and was good enough to be exhibited in various summer exhibitions and at major galleries.  Then in 1963, the painting was bought by a retiring BAT executive, E.G. Langford.  One can speculate that he persuaded Sir Duncan to allow him a favourite memento from his office to take home, and the painting has remained with his family ever since.

Mark Stephen is Deputy Director in the London valuations department, responsible for online valuations with 35 years experience in the auction world. The variety and breadth of antique and often, not so-antique, objects and paintings sent to Sotheby’s via our on-line platform is an experience to see.  We sift through watches, jewelry, wine, paintings from every period, silver, ceramics and objects so bizarre they cannot be categorised. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the antiques world passes through our hands on a daily basis. For more information and to have your objects valued click here.

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