- Ivon Hitchens
- autumn river
- signed; also signed, titled, dated 1948 and inscribed Collection of Geoffrey Dearmer Esq. on a label attached to the stretcher
- oil on canvas
- 51 by 105cm.; 20 by 41¼in.
Hitchens' paintings, so characteristic and identifiable, are, like those of his contemporary John Piper, frequently seen as quintessential evocations of the British rural landscape. However, whilst Piper's work often concentrates on much that is man-made and its noble, romantic decay, Hitchens' work takes the viewer deep into the leafy, shady, quiet corners of the countryside.
The means by which Hitchens achieves this end are far removed from a standard topographical approach to landscape and may perhaps explain why his paintings retain such a timeless appeal. Like Piper, Hitchens had been a part of the small modernist movement in British art in the 1930s, and although he started to return to a more representative manner towards the end of that decade, the compositional procedures he had adopted in his abstract painting provided a very useful tool when applied to a landscape subject.
We are fortunate indeed in that the original owner of the present painting wrote to the artist shortly after its acquisition, and in his illustrated reply, Hitchens offers a very interesting insight into the concerns which he felt were key to the success of the painting. Early in the letter Hitchens makes it clear that his compositional devices are essentially built from what he describes as 'the 3 "space" areas'. 'The receding planes' are designed to steer the viewer into the central space occupied by the distant tree just slightly to the right of the centre point of the canvas. Hitchens goes on to say,
can one describe the scent of a flower?... a river and willow trees are always attractive. But this is not a painting of just a river and willow trees. For that a more detailed treatment would be called for. I was interested in the opposing contrasts of "block – space, block – space" (speaking of the visual image & the need to translate that into terms of paint on a flat surface).
The artist's attendant sketches elucidate this further, giving a clear indication of the sinuous path that Hitchens intended the viewer to take, and to maintain this in his own words, 'it becomes necessary to juggle with the tone to ensure that the eye doesn't escape too early'. Hitchens also recognised the important part that relative levels of detail in the foreground would play, noting that were it more detailed 'to avoid over-crowding it would be necessary to paint the distance in atmospheric perspective and this I didn't want because it would have created a hole in the centre of the canvas.'
Finally Hitchens considers the harmonies and balances between the colours and forms, which he terms 'rapports', drawing attention to the pairings of like tones and shapes, and how these work in contrast to give depth and space to the composition.
Hitchens' ability to render the almost tangible and very specific atmosphere of the quiet corners of the countryside goes beyond mere reproduction, and in his monograph on the artist, Peter Koroche suggests that it may be the artist's absorption in his surroundings and the relative isolation of his home beneath the Sussex Downs that gives his painting an intensity which is quite remarkable. Certainly this involvement can be seen in the period from which the present painting dates, as it is from this phase that some of Hitchens' most celebrated series of paintings came. Works from the Terwick Mill series, which dated from 1944-5, were recognised by critics immediately as a significant point in his development, and in the Winter Walk series of 1948 the sense of seeking to uncover the essence of his subject under varying light effects and conditions is most striking.