Lot 521
  • 521

IVON HITCHENS | John by Jordan

50,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Ivon Hitchens
  • John by Jordan
  • signed
  • oil on canvas
  • 76 by 42.5cm.; 29¾ by 16¾in.
  • Executed in 1942.


Leicester Galleries, London, where acquired by W. Bennett Esq
The British American Tobacco Company, from whom acquired by E.G. Langford, March 1963, and thence by descent to the present owner


The canvas is original. The canvas undulates slightly towards the upper and lower left corners. There is some craquelure in areas of the composition including but not limited to the black pigment, the thicker areas of white impasto and the green pigment above the mother. There is an uneven varnish evident in the upper right corner, with some spots of surface mould in the same area and in the black pigment at the lower left edge. There is some general surface dirt to the work and one instance of surface detritus to the upper right corner. Subject to the above the work appears to be in good overall condition. Inspection under ultra violet light reveals no obvious signs of retouching. The work is held behind glass in an ornate carved frame with a linen slip. Please telephone the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any further questions regarding the present lot.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

In 1942, Ivon Hitchens painted a small and incredibly beautiful series of paintings featuring his wife Mollie and their infant son John in their home at Greenleaves, in the heart of dense woodland near Petworth. The series was titled John by Jordan –‘Jordan’ being the playful name they gave to the tin bath stored at the back of the gypsy caravan that had initially been home, an allusion to the River Jordan in which John the Baptist immersed new converts to Christianity in, one imagines, similarly cold water.  As Peter Khoroche writes, the John by Jordan series 'evoke a paradise regained, where the archetypal family can live in primal innocence and happiness, at one with nature – an image heightened by contrast with the menace of war.' (Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens, Lund Humphries, 2007, London, p.72)  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’.