Moatlands - Winter Stage, c.1936
Masterpiece London, 2020
The Estate of the Artist.
Jonathan Clark & Co., London.
Private collection, UK.
Moatlands - Winter Stage was painted at a key moment in Ivon Hitchens' career when he first started using the long, narrow canvasses (traditionally the preserve of panoramas and seascapes) that were to become his signature format. These wide expanses allowed him to unfold his vision of the landscape, most typically in a series of interconnected but distinct phases, which can be read from left to right as one would a musical score.
Hitchens himself would approve of this analogy. As he was to write a decade later: 'My pictures are painted to be "listened" to...I should like things to fall into place with so clear a notion that the spectator's eye and "aesthetic ear" shall receive a clear message, a clear tune. I seek to recreate the truth of nature by making my own song about it (in paint)...this creation must satisfy me as being true to life, though not naturalistically accurate…Using as instruments in one’s orchestra, each to be heard separately yet all in unity, line, form, plane, shape, tone, notan [a Japanese principle of laying light against dark], colour; warm, cool, recession, progression, softness, sharpness, crowdedness, emptiness, up and down, side to side, curves and straights, and any other pairs of opposites, ordering these in transition, opposition, repetition, symmetry and balance' (Ivon Hitchens, ‘Notes on Painting’, the 1940s, reproduced in Ark, Royal College of Art, 1956; quoted in full in Peter Khoroche, Ivon Hitchens, Andre Deutsch, London, 1990, pp.54-56).
All of these elements can be seen in Moatlands - Winter Stage, with the architecture of the loggia dividing the work into five ‘movements’, the lightness of their frames contrasted with the depth of colour in the world beyond – which in turn is rendered so loosely, with such bravura, that it initially feels entirely abstract, before the image coalesces on the eye and reads as a view deep into a dark wood, with a blue sky beyond. It was Patrick Heron in his monograph on Hitchens, published in 1955, who first noted the 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, water in a lake – as ‘existing in paint’.
Hitchens' painting, then, is less about the landscape as seen, but more as it is experienced, over time and season. To achieve this, the artist would often return to a couple of favoured locations time and again, familiarity allowing him to dig deep beneath the surface appearance of things, to find the music both in the motif and in his own response as a painter. Moatlands Park was one such place, the home of his early patrons Mr and Mrs Cecil Harris, who gave Hitchens the room above the garage so that he could paint as he pleased and socialise when it suited. What particularly inspired Hitchens about Moatlands was its setting deep in the Sussex woods, which allowed him an immediate sight of paths through the trees. The happy and productive days Hitchens and his new wife Molly spent here in the mid- to- late 1930s were, without doubt, the inspiration for his creation of Greenleaves, the house and studio and where he lived and worked for the rest of his life – itself a house buried deep within his motif, surrounded by trees and the shallow ponds he dug to capture the reflection of the woods and sky.