Eric Block

John Hitchens on Aspects of Landscape


A major new retrospective at Southampton City Art Gallery examines the work of British artist John Hitchens – over fifty works spanning almost six decades char the artist’s journey from his descriptive style to a unique form of abstract painting. The landmark show, featuring recent work that has never been seen in public before, is also accompanied by a beautifully produced 300-page monograph. I had the privilege to speak to John to hear more.

You grew up in the South Downs. What about this part of the world is so inspiring to you?

The area of the South Downs is the part of the world I know and love. There is so much variety of landscape here – from the chalk downland, to heathland and the varied field soils, different types of woodland, rivers and stream valleys and coastal scenery. Despite many painting trips in the past to Wales, Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, this has remained central to my creative work. Though the work has evolved slowly and consistently over the years, these aspects of West Sussex remain an essential reference point to my practice.

South Downs Blue Hill, 1964 ©John Hitchens

You come from a long line of painters and your son is a sculptor. How does the mantle of artist pass from generation to generation?

How indeed! For many occupations – farmers, doctors, etc – it is natural for generations to follow on.  So, for me it is, perhaps natural being influenced by the surroundings and values of a painter father and a creative mother, their gentle encouragement but non-interference; and so, perhaps generation to generation.

Your new retrospective at Southampton City Art Gallery, Aspects of Landscape, brings together your work spanning six decades. What led you artistically to move towards abstraction?

So many artists seem to follow the course from realism to a more personal vision and interpretation in their work.  As one accomplishes aspects of painting, one is bound to search the next link to other possibilities. So-called abstraction enables one to incorporate all aspects of one’s interests and values, that have a bearing on one’s work. As I naturally outgrew each stage more possibilities opened.

Also on display in the show are some three dimensional works. How do these sit within your practice?

The works in this exhibition are only a small part of my explorations of possibilities in sculpture, installation and collage work. All are closely related to the paintings though some less obviously so. Similar forms and shapes can be cross referenced in various mediums (more examples of this are in the book). The standing pieces in the exhibition are clearly related to the paintings.

John Hitchens, Aspects of Landscape, Installation view, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2020. Photo: A. K. Purkiss 

Sketchbooks and photographs are also on display. Can you talk us through your preparatory process? Aerial photography also seems of great inspiration?

There is no preparatory process as such in my work. Every medium is approached in its own right and for its own potential, each eventually throwing insights on the whole. Sketch books, drawing, ideas pages, writing and photographs are all seen as pursuits in their own right. The period of aerial photography came as I was changing my landscape vision from across the land, to down onto the land. Without the sky element – for so long, of such integral importance to my work – I was free to expand the brush marks and forms across the whole canvas.  This led, in time, to the so-called, more abstract approach.

In this exhibition the public will be seeing some of your work that has never before been shown. What do you hope viewers take away from the new body of work?

I would hope that viewers of this exhibition will come away with a sense of excitement and exhilaration in having their eyes opened to a different sort of painting to that to which they may be used to.

John Hitchens, Aspects of Landscape, Installation view, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2020. Photo: A. K. Purkiss

John Hitchens, Aspects of Landscape, Installation view, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2020. Photo: A. K. Purkiss 

In conjunction with your exhibition opening was the launch of an album by American composer Peter Dayton entitled Aspects of Landscape: Music inspired by the world of John Hitchens. Can you tell me more about your creative relationship with Dayton – how it initially came about and how you both inspire one another? 

Peter Dayton is 50 years younger than myself, two very different people from opposite ends of their creative career. I believe he saw some of my father’s paintings whilst on a trip to London – looked him up on Google and discovered my website.  One painting, ‘From Sombre Lands’, inspired his piano piece of that title. When the orchestral version was released on CD I painted my response title – ‘From Sombre Lands – Orchestral’.  A very large canvas which uses my full orchestral painterly palette. This has led onto other response pieces.

His most recent composition, the large orchestral sound of ‘From Forgotten Lands’ – which is on the new CD (his response to seeing my large ‘From Sombre Lands – Orchestral’ painting) is hopefully to be responded to, on canvas this year. Also, an updated version of ‘The Grounds’ painting is planned. Peter is now writing (‘Grounds 2’), his response to my ‘Grounds’ painting. Our ‘collaboration’ is thus a loose, serious, fun concept that seems to motivate both of us as a separate venture to our more regular pursuits. My work has become self-perpetuating with so many ideas stored for hopeful use as well as ideas and side paths rising out of each painting on which I work.

There is also a monograph published, can you tell us more about how this came together?

The book came about to link up with the exhibition.  It seems that large retrospective exhibitions are usually accompanied by a monograph that goes beyond the scope of the exhibition. This book could not have reached its present form without the dedication and application and will of photographer, Anne Purkiss. In this case the book contains far more illustrations of my work than could be sensibly shown even in this huge gallery. The book itself has been forced to exclude whole areas of my creative process. It was important to give a sense of unity to all the interrelated explorations and following of different pathway leads. There have always been strong links between the different avenues of exploration.  I see them all the time in unexpected juxtapositions of works. The periods when I have left behind the skills of painting skies in very ‘painterly’ paintings and then even conventional composition have all been very much a natural part of my ongoing journey.

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