A major retrospective of the artist John Hitchens reveals a compelling body of work by an artist who has extended the boundaries of landscape painting.
Hitchens first came to public prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, when his work was represented by the London galleries, Marjorie Parr and Montpelier Studios. Since this period his work has been acquired by many public institutions and private collections in the UK and overseas. Yet, to date there has never been such a thorough retrospective of his work.
Entitled Aspects of Landscape, the exhibition is arranged over four galleries and features more than fifty paintings spanning five decades, three-dimensional works, sketchbooks and archive photographs. Not only does the show offer an an insight in the range and diversity of Hitchens’ work, it also charts the artist’s journey from descriptive to a unique form of abstract painting.
Then as now, his main subject and source of inspiration is the landscape of the British Isles, its hills and field patterns, woodland, sea, the night sky and forms in nature — and the South Downs and woodlands that surround his studio, which he has known since childhood, in particular. Originally, he depicted landscape pictorially, but from the 1990s onwards, when his practice became more studio based, his work began to lean increasingly towards abstraction –– a development greatly influenced by a period spent photographing landscape elements from the air.
Hitchens’ retrospective begins with recent paintings from 2000 onwards which have never been show in public before. These monumental works explore new ways of seeing and depicting aspects of landscape, and epitomise the influence aerial photography had on the artist. Dots and lines reflect rows of stubble, post-holes in the ground and paths on the hills. Dark areas hark back to the custom of stubble burning.
Enacting a reverse chronology the exhibition then presents works from the 1990s, which seem to mark a key transitional phase for the artist during which he dispensed with many features of his earlier more pictorial work. During this time Hitchens turned his attention to exploring landscape through essential elements, such as stones, sand or wood. Another innovation of this time saw Hitchens depart from the use of conventional square-cornered canvases, instead using distinctive, irregularly shaped and layered canvases.
The final two galleries focus on Hitchens’ earlier works from the 1960s-1980s. Here the viewer is set to encounter a key series, The Far Wood landscapes produced primarily in the 1980s — these works show how the artist began to dispense bit by bit with pictorial depictions of skylines and cloud formations becoming freer in their construction and brushwork. An interesting contrast can be found with one of Hitchens earliest works ‘South Downs Blue Hill’, painted in 1964, it shows a view of the South Downs landscape close to his Sussex studio — an environment which has been a defining influence throughout his career.
The exhibition, which runs until June 27, provides the chance to engage with the full breadth of the artist’s work and will be accompanied by an illustrated monograph. Moreover, it offers a timely opportunity to contemplate our own relationship with the land around us, as Andrew Ellis, Director of Art UK aptly sums up:
“In my mind, it is his sensitive observation of landscape, of man-made patterns and traces on the land, that makes John Hitchens’ work so relevant at a time when many of us are re-thinking our relationship to the land we inhabit”