...the visual 'sound' is of the first and greatest importance. Without it the picture is useless... My pictures are painted to be 'listened' to.

Ivon Hitchens always painted. As a young man he was drawn to Shelley's poetry and early on took up the numinous qualities of river vista and the wilder English countryside and transformed them into a highly thought-out structure that extended the spatial logic of Cezanne into something of his own. Almost alone amongst his English contemporaries, he developed a sensual use of colour, paint texture and the language of brushwork. Through spontaneity and communicable intuition his work tells us, so pleasurably, things we could learn no other way.

He studied for four years at the Royal Academy Schools in London during the First World War. In the l920's and 30's he lived in a studio in Adelaide Road, Hampstead, one of a circle of hard-up, avant-garde artists that included Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson.

In l940 a bomb landed next door to the studio and changed the direction of his life. Ivon, with his wife Mollie, set off to camp on land bought the year before in Sussex.

Their new home - a showman's caravan with large wooden wheels - was towed out from the village by cart-horse and deposited under silver birch, chestnut and oak trees. After the birth of their son John, a two-storey house was built and as the sale of paintings increased, flat-roofed studios and conservatories were nudged up against the building like the shelves of fungi on the trees around them. Oil lamps and paraffin heaters, with their endless demand to be trimmed and cleaned, were their only source of light and heat.

For forty years, these six acres of woodland near Midhurst were to Hitchens as Walden pond was to Thoreau: his place of study; his microcosm; his inspiration.

The house and studios still stand in the woods, the paths winding between giant rhododendron are still cleared back in the summer; the earth underfoot still spongy under a thick cayrpet of leaves.

Wind gusts through the tops of trees; willow, water; silver birch reflected in a pond. The blue door. A statue covered with scabs and spots of lichen. Branches green with moss snake across the paths; sandy soil, the eruptions of mole hills; acid yellow puffballs litter the dark earth; tiered sheaths of fungi sprout from sloughed-off bark. The divided oak, halved to the ground in the great storm, gives off shoots from its fallen trunk which lift into fifteen foot saplings.

I paint life as I see it, hear it, feel it, smell it and think it, but above all see it. It is sifted through one's intelligence. The canvas receives Life - becomes alive, gives back life and finally shows the relativity of nature.

An empty boat on a small pond. A workman's hut become boathouse. A bridge arches onto an island, its sides cross-hatched, its floor the wicked-witch green of slippery planking, not like Monet's immaculate arch over lily ponds, but weathered, English style, over a unity of pale duckweed. Water cropped with the dead sheaths of flag irises. Dead leaves balanced on pools of reflection below chestnut trees. A woodland vista. Then out into bracken land, fifteen feet green in high summer, collapsed in autumn into russet swathes, its shrivelled lace curled back to slanted stick. A forgotten orchard.

He worked direct from nature. Every morning, after breakfast he would vanish to the studio. Brushes were shaken out from their pails of water. He never cleaned them so that a residue of colour might show through the next day's paint. If the weather was dry, he would gather all the paraphernalia needed for a day's work, load it onto a wheelbarrow and push it along the narrow paths between high rhododendron to the day's chosen spot. Sometimes everything was carted up onto the flat roofs of the studios or set up by one of the two small artificial ponds near the house; or a taxi called to take him up to the Downs or along to a neighbouring mill or river.

Once one commences to paint so many factors come into play that one has to plunge in and swim for dear life, hoping to reach the opposite shore.

His deliberations came before the actual painting. The original idea, put down in line drawings and notes, would often be abandoned in favour of a more spontaneous working of the subject. He allowed none of the careful preparation to slow him down. (It took him forty years, he said, to unlearn his academic training.) Towards the end of a series he would paint directly onto the canvas - a race into joy.

At other times he allowed the original sketch marks to show through at the finish: lines slashed across the white canvas with the vigour of outsize calligraphy. His friend, Patrick Heron, pointed out that in an era when the paintbrush with all its variety of language is being obliterated, Hitchens'abstract units... are not unrelated to the brush work on the best Sung pots.'

He adopted the horizontal shaped canvas, the double square. With it he could play with the tensions between the left and right sides of the composition, encouraging the spectator's eye to move from distance to foreground and from side to side. He let go of shading and weight, sometimes even reversing it. The white spaces of the canvas were a means of letting a shape define itself. They stopped the picture from becoming breathless, he said, and allowed the eye to travel 'from floe to floe'. This is what challenged him: to let go of traditional painting leading to a complete reconstruction of the facts of nature, A cow, a tree, a house are not really separate objects but one unity, a scale in space.

Throughout his life he made line drawings mostly of his family and people working the land, or as sketches for an idea. The drawing skill, deliberately held back in his landscapes and flower paintings, shows in the unfudged, confident lines of the figure. Details read like the shorthand of Matisse and the objects in the room react, as though the body were a chord resonating throughout the canvas.

He painted several huge murals. The largest, completed in 1954, was sixty-nine feet long. For four years the studios were festooned with strips of canvas looped onto bars hung from the ceilings like roller towels. When a section was finished, he would pull it up or down and continue on the fresh canvas. He never saw the whole painting until it was in situ.

In the last decade of his life his palette became even more vibrant in its bold juxtaposition of colour. These exuberant canvases are astonishing for a man who completed his final painting two weeks before his death at eighty-six. It's as if he had shouldered a lifetime's knowledge, let go, and jumped into colour with both feet flying.

Life is so horribly short that ideas which I've had for creating something entirely different get shelved and put aside day after day... I put my head out of the door and there's a new subject again which is calling, crying out to be painted.... one settles in on that and before one knows where one is, June, July, August, September have gone by, and there's the Autumn.

Naomi Brandel Jan 2000

All words highlithed are taken from Ivon Hitchens' letters or notes