More Modernist Than Florist: Ivon Hitchens At The Garden Museum

The Garden Museum (https://gardenmuseum.org.uk) is currently staging a major exhibition devoted to the life and paintings of Ivon Hitchens which runs until 15th July. It must have taken quite a while to put together and considerable powers of persuasion to obtain so many high quality loans.  The show covers the whole of his career but has  a particular emphasis on his output during the period after his London home was bombed in 1940 and his consequent move to some six acres of woodland in West Sussex, where he and his family lived firstly in a caravan and subsequently in a slightly ramshackle and home-built house.

Art exhibitions here seem to fall into two distinct categories. The first is of competent but specialised horticultural artists or illustrators who succeed in showing what is in front of them and these naturally hold most appeal to the Museum’s core membership while giving great pleasure in the process. The second, of which this and a previous show of Cedric Morris’s work are fine examples, is of art which transcends its subject, appeals to a wider audience and may well be the subject of exhibitions in major London galleries: Morris’s work for example was exhibited by Philip Mould at the same time as the Museum’s show.

Hitchens certainly took nature and his surroundings as a starting point and often painted flowers, but he was no mere florist or botanical illustrator. His output never entirely lost its representational qualities, but he was undoubtedly a modernist at heart, without ever becoming a totally abstract, as opposed to abstracted, painter. Nonetheless his background and training meant that the formal qualities of his art, and especially the ability to use colour as a way of transcending  the two dimensional limitations of his canvas, often came to outweigh the original subject matter. He had studied at the Royal Academy Schools and then played a major part in London’s artistic community before the Second World War. The Museum points out that he was a key member of the Seven and Five Society, who were famous for holding the first ever all abstract exhibition in Britain. The society also included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and artist plantsman Cedric Morris.

He tends towards abstraction of form, and certainly doesn’t do hard edges. He implies far more than he paints creating moods and atmospheres ranging from the dreamy to the sinister. His Tangled Pool from 1946, below, is a better demonstration of this point than any verbal analysis. For all the blurring of his subjects on the canvas he is superb at showing the fall of light on surfaces of different shapes and textures and produces a sense of solidity without in any way mimicking what he chose to paint. The detail of a Figure in a Landscape, below,  shows his rendering of an arm in a totally “unrealistic” green paint that still most satisfactorily conveys the sense of muscular tension and the pattern of light as the hand grasps and the arm supports what might be a vase, or perhaps even a paper.

His greatest artistic achievement though, one his many imitators and followers fail to match, is to use colour in a way that is both “musical” (a declared aim of his art) and also creates a strong sense of depth in the picture plane. The relationships between, and the advance and recession of, the colours themselves are the agents of the works’ impact on the senses, perceptions and feelings of his viewers.  His Poppies in a Green Bowl of 1930 have the reds advancing towards you, while the blues recede into an undefined whiteness of light filled space. In a painting of lilies of similar vintage, the orange-red anthers of the flower almost seem to jump out at you and to exist in front of the picture plane. Of course good artist have always understood this but this work was made twenty years before the first of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series and there is certainly nothing simplistic or naive about these paintings.

If you’re a member of the Garden Museum, or a fan of Hitchens’ work, or just in the area, then this is an exhibition very well worth seeing. Although its facilities are greatly improved, the Museum has admittedly lost some of its previous and almost rustic charm after its recent makeover.  However it is very well worth supporting. Even if the restaurant has positioned itself in a price range that makes lunch a much more costly treat, you can still enjoy reasonably priced coffee and cakes while sitting comfortably and looking through into the fascinating surrounding spaces.


Tangled Pool, 1946

Poppies in a Green Bowl c 1930

Detail of figure in a garden



Andy Barker at Zuleika Gallery

Lizzie Collins of Zuleika Gallery (https://zuleikagallery.com/), located at 6 Mason’s Yard, specialises in good emerging and contemporary art and is a discovery. Occupying one room at the top of quite a few flights of stairs, it’s well worth the climb. The name incidentally comes from Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson: For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like. 

It is currently showing the works of Andy Barker, who for 22 years was Howard Hodgkin’s studio assistant and was there last night for the private view, when we had a quick talk. He is courteous and friendly, slightly reserved but not shy and quite cerebral without being drily academic. He described working for Hodgkin as the best job in the whole world, when I only didn’t come in for perhaps two or three days during the entire period. Clearly possessed of considerable energy and focus, he got up at five o’clock most mornings in order to produce his own work before getting on with the day job. By mutual consent they never discussed each other’s paintings, although Hodgkin was obviously supportive of what he was doing and held it in high regard. 

The paintings are in every sense very “layered” and full of associations and connections as well as containing multiple images and evoking quite a range of sensations. Their titles are frequently of Indian and South American subjects and the opportunity to travel with Hodgkin for several months of the year obviously provided initial subject matter and input for the works. They are largely constructed using oil paint and collage on wood but apart from the superficial similarity of being quite bright, are actually very different from Hodgkin’s work, which despite its apparently abstract appearance was in fact focused on the recall, at an emotional and sensory level, of very specific events in time and place. 

Andy’s stated interests include the whole treatment of the picture plane and the influence of early Italian art, especially Boticelli, Simone Martini, and Ambrogio and Paolo Loronzetti. We talked about the way in which these artists constructed space and perspective on the picture plane and moving towards articulating it in a way where objects could exist in separate groupings, more linked by rhythm than a single coherent space – think for example of Boticelli’s Primavera. This is not well expressed but the image below gives you some idea of how they are.

Digital images don’t really fully convey what these pictures are like. Much better to go along if you’re in London and make your own mind up. The gallery is friendly and unpressured. You should obviously never buy anything unless you really want it, have a space for it and can afford it. However, these are priced between the mid thousands to lower tens of thousands of pounds,  in a way that reflects the previously very low profile of the artist rather than the inherent quality of the work. While buying for investment is a complete mug’s game I suspect these prices may turn out to seem cheap in a few years’ time. 


In Paraná, It All Happened Too Fast!, 2007, oil and collage on wood


Bowman Sculpture: Yves Dana in Duke Street

Last Wednesday evening I was asked to the private view of an exhibition of works by the Swiss Yves Dana, at Bowman Sculpture in Duke Street. The Gallery is probably best known for works by Rodin and Emily Young but these were a delight.

It was a thoroughly friendly party: anyone interested in looking around or considering buying a piece of sculpture would find the gallery approachable and not at all intimidating. Dana, who was born in Egypt, was there and spoke interestingly about his training, materials, work and influences.  Over the past forty years he has worked in iron, plaster, stone and bronze. While there is no specific iconography or “meaning” associated with these pieces, and Yves is keen to exclude specific interpretations of his work nonetheless the influence of Ancient Egypt and the sense of a journey seem very present. The works are very tactile and combine clear simple forms with a high level of surface detail. Although not cheap all the pieces are well within the reach of a decent city bonus. The only caveat, and one that applies to nearly all sculpture, is that they will show at their best with a carefully chosen plinth placed where the fall of natural and artificial light works to highlight both form and surface..

Since this was my first opportunity to look at these works I think may be helpful to quote from the exhibition catalogue:

Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1959, after training at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, Geneva, Dana set up his first studio in 1979.

Dana’s first exhibition in 1982 featured twenty mechanical and acoustic sculptures made out of iron. He continued with this approach until 1996, when a six-month stay in Egypt, his birthplace, inspired him to create simpler, hieratic shapes cast in bronze. Dana says: ‘The six months I spent in Egypt really did give me a new lease of life and helped me to set both my mind and my hands free… It was then that I abandoned iron in favour of plaster. I worked under an immense sky on the edge of the desert… the frantic, bustling rhythm of the West gave way to a slower Eastern way of life…’

During this time he produced sixteen sculptures that were radically different from his previous work. The inspiration for the series came from ancient forms seen on that trip and thus the Stele series was born. A stele is an upright stone slab or pillar bearing an inscription or design and serving as a monument or marker. Dana says: ‘Standing upright… the idea of territory, traces and imprints… Steles clearly differentiate between the space that is in front of them and the space that is behind them. They look at us from one space to another, from their “beyond”. Their verticality calls for and questions our presence…’

In 1987, at the suggestion of the City of Lausanne, Dana created his studio in the Orangerie of Parc Mon Repos. The sumptuous nineteenth century Orangery was built in 1824 and is a Swiss national heritage building. This huge double-height space allows Dana to create his sculpture on any scale he chooses. Yves Dana imports blocks of basalt from Sweden, limestone from Egypt, France and Turkey, serpentine from Italy and diabase from Germany. Monoliths weighing up to fifteen tonnes are transported to his studio in Switzerland. His bronzes are cast in Tuscany at the Foundry Mariani.

In 2011 The Editions Cercle d’Art Paris made a film about the artist. The documentary shows Yves Dana at work in his studio in Lausanne in December 2010. It explores his methods such as meditating in front of stone blocks, and discusses his approach and his research. The film was premiered at Dana’s studio on the June 25th 2011.  

(https://www.bowmansculpture.com/exhibitions/yves-dana ).


Gallery Round-Up

This seems a good moment to start a series of posts about what’s on in London galleries and museums this month. There’s a pretty good choice this December. Repton’s Red Books are the subject of an exhibition at the Garden Museum. The National Gallery has a free exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and charging ones of Mantegna and Bellini, and Pictures from Samuel Courtauld’s collection. Annie Alber’s weaving is at Tate Modern. At the RA there are some particularly fine, even if sometimes disturbing, works on paper by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina in Vienna. The British Museum meantime offers ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’. And these are only some of what’s on.

London Art Week, (https://londonartweek.co.uk/) which started a few days ago on Thursday 29th and ends in a few days’ time, seems a good place to start. It’s a collaboration between over 40 leading Mayfair and St James galleries and auctioneers who positively encourage visits from the general public in the hopes of wider publicity and finding new customers. Many put on special exhibitions or store up particular treasures for the occasion. There are in fact two such weeks annually, with the more established one in the summer, but this additional event is running well. Obviously one can’t mention or even get round to seeing everything but since this column is written for pleasure rather than out of commercial motivation I make no apologies for just mentioning the things I liked best.

Sam Fogg in Clifford Street (https://www.samfogg.com) has a fine display of predominantly medieval antiquities. I was particularly taken with a series of early sixteenth-century glass roundels (c 1520-30) with religious subjects or armorials, and areas of a lovely golden yellow achieved through the use of silver stain. They are priced between £4,000 and £7,000. Among many other fine things is a single leaf of Kufic script from a Qua’ran, perhaps originating in ninth-century Damascus. That is priced at £20,000 which seems either a lot for a page or very little for such a rare and beautiful survival over 1,200 years old.

The very grand, but friendly, Robilant and Voena (https://www.robilantvoena.com) in Dover Street have focused on the effect of Artemisia Gentileschi on subsequent painting. As one of the best and best known of seventeenth-century female artists, she could hold her own against nearly all but the very greatest painters of her time, regardless of gender. She is also very now in the year of “Me Too” since she was raped by her father’s studio assistant Agostino Tassi and chose to appear as a key witness in the action her father brought against him for damages to the value and reputation of his unmarried daughter as his property. To ensure the veracity of her evidence it was felt necessary to torture her. Some things at least have changed!

The National Gallery recently paid £3.6 million for her self portrait as St Catherine from about 1616 which alludes, in her representation of herself as a tortured martyr, to these events. On offer here in Dover Street is another painting by her, a full length, very fine and rather later (1625 to 1640) portrait of Antoine de Ville which she signed by painting the silver trinkets around his neck to form her initials. It won’t be cheap -price on application!  Amongst other delights in the same gallery is Pompeo Batoni’s half length 1762 portrait of George Craster, in full red, blue and gold regimentals, painted in Rome and combining swagger with sensitivity I feel as good as anything he did. It has excellent provenance by descent and the painter Nathaniel Dance who was working in Batoni’s Roman studio at the time observed of it “Pompeo has made one of the best heads he ever painted”. It is fairly priced at about £550,000.

In Jermyn Street, Galerie Neuse (http://www.galerieneuse.com) from Bremen have a wonderful display of goldsmiths’ work hosted by the textile dealers S Frances. Amongst many excellent  things is a very fine baroque silver helmet-shaped ewer and basin made in Augsburg  around 1720 by Johann Daniel Schaffler. It entered the Royal Household when Mary of Teck, subsequently Queen Mary, married the then Duke of York and future George V. It was subsequently used, as the inscription on the reverse of the basin attests, to hold the water employed at the christening of their various offspring including the future Edward VIII, and by repute but not noted on the inscription, the present Queen’s father, George VI. It is an outstanding example of how history and association add interest and indeed value to something that was outstanding  right from the time it was made.

Finally the major auctioneers have pulled out all the stops. In particular Christies offer some exceptional lots. Tonight, December 4th, a drawing by Lucas van de Leyden of a young man with a sword is amongst some 200 lots to be sold by Rugby School to benefit its endowment funds. It is arguably the last drawing by the artist, of which only 28 are recorded anyway,  that remains in private hands and might well make over a million pounds. On December 6th the evening old master sale includes a superb Van Dyck Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), daughter of King Charles I of England, full-length, in a pink dress decorated with silver embroidery and ribbons, date-able to 1641. It is estimated to go for between £5 and £8 million.

The events go on until this Friday 7th December and if you in the Mayfair and St James area it’s well worth dropping by to any of the 42 galleries involved, even if you have neither the intention or the means to buy anything. If of course you have you would be even more welcome!


London Art Week Summer 2017

By the time this appears London Art Week will be over. I missed the preview and only got there on Thursday, but I can report that it appears to have been a great success with numerous red dots on exhibits. Perhaps more to the point from the perspective of those who follow these posts, it took place in an exceptionally friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Of course, dealers would not exist if there was no money to be made, but equally most people involved are really passionate about what they do and want to share that passion. This is really not the same sort of business as the market for pork belly futures, where one unkindly suspects  many traders have never even seen a pork belly. If however there are City bonuses to be spent, there are plenty of things here you could do worse than to buy. Obviously one can’t write about everyone, even though the quality was very high throughout, so here are a few favourites.

Mark Weiss in Jermyn Street is focusing on Tudor and Jacobean portraiture and the role of clothing at Court. The gallery is showing several immaculately tailored reconstructions of court clothing alongside portraits where the sitters are wearing the same sort of attire. A portrait of Sir Roland Cotton by Paul van Somer shows him, as the Gallery states, wearing one of the most resplendent costume pieces of this period and the silk doublet and breeches are virtuosically tailored with deep slashing on the doublet to reveal a layer of blue silk beneath. The original costume was lovingly preserved by his family and given by his descendants to the V and A in 1938, where it remains.

Even finer, in my judgement at least, is the portrait, also painted on panel, of Lady Jane Thornagh by William Larkin, painted in 1617, a couple of years before the artist’s death. It combines an immaculate provenance by descent within the Thornagh family, superb condition with the impasto fully preserved and an exceptional and wonderful surface, and is of outstanding quality. Again I quote from the Gallery’s notes The intricately embroidered and brilliantly coloured costume is kaleidoscopic in effect. The motifs include sea monsters, maritime birds and flora, emerging from stylised silvery ripples of water on her skirt. Her bodice is decorated with crimson-crested woodpeckers, insects, grapes, and flowers punctuated by silver spangles and swirling patterns of golden thread. They are depicted with painstaking attention and each brushstroke imitates individual stitches. This picture had an intriguing red dot on its label and I understand has recently been sold, possibly to a museum.

Bowman in Duke Street is showing one of Emily Young’s large sculpted heads in St James Churchyard: her large pieces are very popular and well suited to incorporation in a garden setting – if anyone wants something along these lines designed do feel free to let us know! There are several good Rodin bronzes in the gallery itself. Faunesse Debout was originally conceived as part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and the version here, cast from the original plaster in 1945 on behalf of the Musee Rodin, is very fine. 

Stephen Ongpin in Mason’s Yard is showing a group of drawings by Giovanni Baptista Tiepolo, such as this one of a Centaur Carrying off a Young Faun, and by his son Giovanni Dominico.  The father’s works show a remarkable economy of line used to suggest volume. They appear to have mostly been produced by way of working out ideas for more finished works in other media. The son’s are often highly finished drawings in their own right. Many of these drawings, including a head of an old man that I reckoned the finest of them all, have been sold, but some still remain.

There are some very grand things available while the same galleries also offer material within the reach of, admittedly comfortably off, private collectors. For example at Dickinson in Jermyn Street, there is a wonderful pair of Guardi Capriccios for a seven figure price, but also a very fine Portrait of a Jockey by Frederic Whiting (a less fashionable but very able contemporary of Munnings) for about £12,000.

If you turn up, as you should not hesitate to do when the next one occurs at the beginning of December this year, gallery owners will be genuinely glad to see you and will happily talk about what they offer. Chris