Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Middle Period Purchase

Ivon Hitchens  CBE 1893 - 1979

1.  Firwood Ride

Firwood Ride, Autumn-Var 2  ~  A well travelled painting.

This work was encountered at the gallery managed by William Hardie.  Brought over from Toronto for sale on behalf of the owner, Dr Grant Honeyman, the work seemed to be destined for a corporate collection when it was discovered by the Maclaurin staff.  Brought before the purchasing committee for approval, it was an instant success, the painterly quality of the work and the status of the artist fitting the collection profile.

When making a purchase for the collection it was usual to seek financial assistance from the Local Museum's Purchase Fund and other charitable bodies that might support the museum's work. On this occasion, grant aid for the purchase was sought from the National Art-Collections Fund. The gallery had already received two gifts from the Fund, Mary Armour's Armenian Basket and Robin Phillipson's Fighting Bulls; it was felt that the historical dimensions of the work might appeal to the Fund.

In 1985 the Fund's committee met on a monthly basis at the Royal Academy in London. Their selectors would not accept photographs when considering financial support for acquisitions; they insisted on viewing the work itself. So, every month, there was a stream of curators delivering small packages to the Academy, to be collected the following day after consideration by the committee. For small scale works, the personal delivery process did not pose any major problems but for larger scale contemporary works there were significant issues. There was no support available at the Academy to handle the works so curators had to travel there in person, carrying their potential purchases, or rely on a trusted carrier to deliver and unwrap the work, collecting it the following day. The Academy did not offer temporary storage facilities to assist museums or their couriers in any way.  Works had to be delivered between 3 and 4pm and collected between 9 and 10am the next morning.

There was no carrier available to undertake the handling of the work so it was decided that the Gallery Director would take the work to London himself and, after an overnight stay, collect the painting for return to Ayr.   In those halcyon days there was a morning train from Ayr to London (it called briefly at Glasgow Central) so the logistics appeared to be simple. Pack the painting in a secure but manageable crate and it could be conveyed to Euston, leaving but a short taxi ride to the Royal Academy. Initially, the plan worked without difficulties; the train left Ayr with the painting secure in the guards compartment and the journey to London was hassle free. But it could not last. At Euston the crate was too large to fit inside a taxi so it had to be carried projecting from the taxi's tiny boot. After an anxious 15 minutes traversing the mid-afternoon traffic, with the packing crate projecting above the roof of the cab, the package was delivered to the Royal Academy basement and safely unpacked for viewing by the grants committee.

Returning to collect the painting the next morning, Mike decided to donate (i.e. abandon) the packing case to the Academy cellars and, wrapping the work in bubble wrap, carried it a couple of hundred metres to a friendly gallery in Cork Street. They agreed to store the work until our carrier could collect it some three weeks later.

And the outcome of the application for a purchasing grant? It was unsuccessful, on the basis that the work was contemporary art outwith the usual expertise of the NA-CF committee. However, following this adventure, we were able to persuade the NA-CF that it was inappropriate (and risky) to send large contemporary works for their consideration. Future applications for funding were pursued on the basis of a photograph alone.

2. Hitchens

3. Holiday
(left to right) Ivon Hitchens, Irina Moore, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Mary Jenkins.

Ian Collins introduces an exhibition at Norwich Castle in 2009, explaining this photograph and it's significance.  He writes:

A blockbuster exhibition opens at Norwich Castle, Ian Collins charts the story of a Norfolk seaside holiday that would help change the course of art history along with the lives and loves of some of the artists.

When, in 1930, Barbara Hepworth proposed a seaside holiday for their group of kindred spirits, Moore recommended Church Farm, Happisburgh. Moore and his Russian-born wife Irina were invited to join them in Norfolk, as were Barbara's friends Douglas and Mary Jenkins and the painter Ivon Hitchens. They returned the following year.

A black-and-white snapshot exists of six artistic friends on the beach at Happisburgh in September 1931. Three look away from the camera and three stare rather startlingly out at us. 

The figures gazing straight ahead, and apparently into the future, are Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson - the latter seated but all set to spring. So much of the story of progressive 20th century British art will rest on them.

Any sense of tension from this holiday snap is not entirely due to the fomenting of radical art on a working holiday, though Moore and Hepworth, modernist sculptors sharing Yorkshire roots (and a smoking habit), are even now rivals as well as allies.  No, the electricity is more personal. Barbara - serpentine as a Norfolk flint as she fixes her hair - has just fallen in love with Ben.  Her sculptor husband John Skeaping will soon arrive from London in a last-ditch bid to save the marriage and find he is too late. Up in Cumberland with her children and paints, Winifred Nicholson is in for bad news.
.  .  .  .

[From a note by Ian Collins introducing an exhibition at Norfolk Museums]


Ivon Hitchens CBE 1893 - 1979

1.   Firwood Ride, Autumn-Var 2. Ivon Hitchens 1893 - 1979, Oil on canvas, 407 x 1090mm.  The Maclaurin Trust.  Purchased from William Hardie Fine Art, Glasgow, acting on behalf of Dr Grant Honeyman, Ontario.

Exhibited in the inaugural exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 1960.  It is believed that this work was formerly in the personal collection of Dr Tom Honeyman, Director of the Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow.

2.  Ivon Hitchens, 1954.  by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 165 x 123 mm.  Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

3.    On holiday at Happisburgh in Norfolk, 1931: (left to right) Ivon Hitchens, Irina Moore, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Mary Jenkins.

This image was featured in the exhibition at Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh: Hepworth and Moore 1928-1938, Happisburgh 1930 and the Development of Modern British Sculpture, 2012.

In the late summer of 1930 Henry Moore and Irina Moore together with Barbara Hepworth, her husband Jack Skeaping, the painter Ivon Hitchens, their friend Douglas Jenkins and his girlfriend decided to take a working holiday together, renting The Manor House at Happisburgh on the east coast of Norfolk. For two weeks they enjoyed the Norfolk landscape, walking on the beaches and collecting pebbles that later would have a profound influence on their work.

Although there was an emphasis on the St. Ives School in the Maclaurin Collection, other significant artist groupings and individual artists from the earlier years of the twentieth century were not overlooked. 

Some of these groups could be associated with the School of Paris while others had grown out of the English narrative painting traditions.  (Scottish Art had, historically, looked to the Low Countries in the case of of the Glasgow Boys and, more especially, France and the Impressionists in the case of the Scottish Colourists.)  There were certain key figures in France who informed the further development of Scottish Art and the St Ives School.  Matisse, Cezanne and Delauney immediately come to mind.

One of the English groups was the Seven and Five Society, founded in 1919, which published a short manifesto and held its first exhibition in 1920. It's aims included a desire '.  .  . to group together men who do not attempt to achieve publicity by mere eccentricity of form or colour, but believe that to be sincere is not necessarily to be dull'.

Ivon Hitchens joined shortly after the founding of the Society.  In 1924 he invited Ben Nicholson to join. This was to be the beginning of a major shift in direction for the group and was to transform the Society into the most important group of painters working in England in the 1920's and early 30's.

Hitchens commented, 'No artist should label himself. That is for others to do. An absolute statement, which has such a peculiar attraction for certain types of mind, has the great disadvantage of destroying the very life of the idea. A painter should have no rules or formulas'.

Winifred Nicholson first showed in 1926 along with artists such as Edward Wolfe and Jessica Dismorr. The following year Cedric Morris was to join along with Christopher Wood. John Aldridge joined in 1931. Other prominent members included David Jones, Piper, Hodgkins, Hepworth, Moore and Bawden.

In 1934 Ben Nicholson introduced a rule which allowed only non-representational work to be shown in the Society's exhibitions. This split the group and many artists left.

In 1935 the Society held the first all-abstract exhibition in Britain which included works by Winifred Nicholson and John Piper. It was the last exhibition of the group.

Hitchens was never one to associate himself with narrow doctrinaire views in painting. Apart from a relatively brief flirtation with abstraction his work is remarkable for its consistency, its qualities of colour and pure painterlyness. For instance he did not regard the brushstroke as subservient to the overall design but rather as an integral part.

He was influenced by Kandinsky's ideas on the primacy of colour and the essentially musical nature of painting quite early in his career. 'I seek to recreate the truth of nature by making my own song about it (in paint)', he said. Hitchens developed a preference for a canvas size which was twice as long as its width thus giving the picture not one but several focal points for the eye to read. During the early part of the Second World War his Hampstead house was bombed and he moved to the South Downs near Petworth. He continued to paint still lifes, interiors and figurative works although his main preoccupation was with landscape. In 1950 he had an exhibition completely devoted to nudes.

In a retrospective exhibition at the Tate (1963), Alan Bowness wrote:

'Hitchen's country is one of lush and leafy woodlands, mysterious glades where the light filters with difficulty through matted branches, streams that open into dark ponds shrouded with crowded trees and bushes, sudden vistas and breaks to the sky with glimpses of distant downland. It is a country that is constantly changing, from season to season, month to month, day to day: this gives a sense of urgency to the work, for the artist knows that opportunities are slipping by, never to return, and that he must act quickly and with determination if he is to make the most of them'.

Bowness considered Hitchens natural feeling for colour to be a rarity amongst English painters. He wrote ' . . .he luxuriates in his colours, arousing a sensuality that is entirely unselfconscious'.

Writing in The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists , James Faure Walker notes that:

'.  .  .  his commitment to colour and open brushwork was closer to the modern French masters, especially in his Fauvist orange nudes set in sunlit interiors. He painted mostly outdoors, however, and his technique developed from a tonal treatment that recalled the informality of Constable's sketches.

This work identified and championed by Mike Bailey.

[Text based, in part on Aspects of Modern Art IV and V, published by Austin/Desmond Fine Art, Sunningdale, Berkshire and other published sources in the public domain.]

Born in London in 1893, Hitchens studied at the St John's Wood School of Art and at the Royal Academy. He produced work in the early 1920's which showed a strong interest in Cezanne. Cubism influenced him and he was one of the very few English painters who were in touch with the work of the French avant-garde at that time.

Hitchens was a pupil at Bedales School between 1903 and 1909, providing an introduction to the Hampshire and Sussex countryside of his later paintings, but his education was interrupted by acute appendicitis. Although his parents tried to cure him with a trip to Australia, here began a lifetime of delicate health that ruled him out from service in WWI.  On his return, he went St John's Wood Art School, and fulfilled his infant ambitions by studying in the Royal Academy Schools from 1912 to 1916.

Hitchens became a member of the 7 & 5 Society in their first year of existence and exhibited with the Society throughout its existence, the only artist to do so. He had his first one-man show at the Mayor Gallery in 1925 showing landscapes and still lifes largely from Cumberland. He exhibited in the 7 & 5 all-abstract show in 1935.

In 1937 he returned to landscape painting although he never lost his links with modernism. Patrick Heron in his introduction to Hitchens in the Penguin Modern Painters series commented: 'Ivon Hitchens is a lone figure in contemporary British art. Sensuous, subtle, the recorder of the 'image' — that un-aggressive, unsymbolic, unallusive, pure sensory image which an immediate visual consciousness of things leads him to create with utter directness — Hitchens simply does not qualify for the idiosyncratic categories of art which the English so much celebrate and honour. Hitchens appears as a true painter: instinctive, passionate and sensuous. His communication resides not in any 'poetic' or symbolic interpretation of visual reality, but in the humble transcription, in terms of paint, of sensation itself'.

After moving to Sussex, Hitchens spent the rest of his life painting the endless combinations of light, leaf, and water that he found in the few square miles around his new home, occasionally stopping for still-lifes, or nudes when he managed to get models up from London.

Hitchens distrusted the theoretical wordiness of the 1930's London art world, and more or less left it for good during the Blitz in 1940; 'art is not reporting. It is memory,' he commented. His contribution to the 1956 Venice Biennale represented a career based almost entirely on these memories, generally transferred to long, rectangular canvases. The Venetian light brought out the 'notan-beauty' of the twenty oil landscapes and flower paintings shown in the Pavilion, and there was sufficient interest to send them on a tour of Vienna, Munich, Paris, and Amsterdam.

In Notes on Painting, published in 1956, Hitchen explained that 'in landscape I find a square-shaped painting usually unsatisfactory .  .  .  . I like my long shapes, so that I can 'move', so that one half or part reacts against, while furthering the purpose of, the other.'

Ever shy of gangs, he twice turned down nomination as a Royal Academician, but accepted a CBE in 1958, a major Arts Council retrospective at the Tate in 1963 and an RA retrospective in 1979.

[Text based, in part on Aspects of Modern Art IV, published by Austin/Desmond Fine Art, Sunningdale, Berkshire; Tim Overton's 2009 note on Biennale participants published by the British Council and other sources in the public domain.]


This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey , and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

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Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016