Peter Khoroche discusses Lund Humphries’ 1973 book on Ivon Hitchens as the ‘benchmark’ for all future writing on the artist
It seems astonishing that until 1973 the only monograph on Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) was the one by Patrick Heron, published in the Penguin Modern Painters series in 1955. His essay, illustrated by 32 plates (only half of them in colour), was typically lively and full of enthusiasm but covered only one decade — 1943-1952 — of the artist’s work.
Hitchens, and his many admirers, had to wait till he was eighty before a book appeared that did justice to a career that by then spanned over 50 years. It was well worth the wait. Published by Lund Humphries, then as now the leading publisher on modern British art, the sumptuous volume was produced to a very high standard. Each of the 121 colour plates was ‘tipped in’ by hand on a separate page, with nothing on the facing page other than the title, date and dimensions of the painting. These were followed by a further 69 plates in black and white. To reproduce faithfully Hitchens’ complex and subtle colour harmonies was in itself a major achievement: the quality of these colour plates has rarely been equalled, and never surpassed, in subsequent publications on Hitchens. The most important point, though, is the choice of paintings to be reproduced. Possibly at the artist’s insistence, paintings of the 1960s and early 70s preponderate over those of earlier decades. The wrap-round dust jacket too shows an uncompromisingly abstract landscape, pared down to a few bold but carefully judged brushstrokes—unmistakably a ‘late Hitchens’. It announces Hitchens as a challenging abstract painter—a romantic modernist maybe, but very definitely a modernist—and a painter of extraordinary originality. Forty years on, Hitchens’ true stature has still not been fully recognized. And so the message of this monograph remains relevant.
As to the text, a personal appreciation by T.G. Rosenthal was followed by a concise critical-analytical account of Hitchens’ development by Alan Bowness. This, however, only goes as far as 1944, which is especially disappointing since, as Bowness himself admits, “the last 30 years [1944-1973] are certainly the most important part of [Hitchens’] career” (p.32). Photos of the artist at work, a skeleton biography, a list of exhibitions in which Hitchens’ work was shown and of museums and galleries at home and abroad where his paintings can sometimes be seen, as well as a bibliography, follow the two essays. Since 1973 it has been possible to fill out the story and correct or refine some details, but the 1973 volume remains the benchmark for all subsequent writings on Hitchens and continues as a source of reference for identifying at least 150 paintings that have been reproduced nowhere else. It has, needless to say, become a collector’s item.
Peter Khoroche wrote the catalogue for an exhibition of Ivon Hitchens’s paintings (Serpentine Gallery, London and tour 1989/90) and for an exhibition of Nicholson’s drawings and painted reliefs (Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and tour 2002/3). He is also the author of Ivon Hitchens (new edition published in 2007 and a paperback published in 2014 (both by Lund Humphries)) and Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs (hardback published in 2002 and a paperback published in 2008 (both by Lund Humphries))