To the Garden Museum, in Lambeth, a museum I’d not visited nor indeed knew existed before now. Of all the small, quaint museums devoted to minor subjects that can be found in London, few can be more quaint yet more rich in interest than the Garden Museum. It is constructed out of a medieval church, the St Mary’s at Lambeth, located next to Lambeth Palace, which had been due for destruction until it was rescued in 1977 and converted into a museum, thanks to the efforts of Rosemary and John Nicholson. They were determined to preserve the tomb of gardening and museum pioneer John Tradescant (c.1570 – 1638) and his son John (1608 – 1662), both of them royal gardeners. It was a logical step to make the abandoned church a museum of gardening.
And so it is. It is a curious arrangement of paintings, drawings, implements, literature, photographs and promotional materials, imaginatively arranged across the original nave, on two floors, with stained glass still in place giving it a state of reverence. You can climb the church’s tower for some fine views over the river and city. There are some witty elements including a video presentation in a shed, a café, a library and two small galleries. It was one of these that was my reason for visiting (I am no gardener and have no garden), as I was keen to see their exhibition, ‘Ivon Hitchens: The Painter in the Woods‘.
Ivon Hitchens is one of those painters who seems to have something for everyone. His paintings are colourful, exuberant, abstract to a degree (all the more so in his latter work) but never alienatingly so, and his subject matter was nature. He painted many flowers, and as a label in the exhibition notes, the paintings of flowers never failed to sell. He had a wild garden in Sussex at his home ‘Greenleaves’, and hence the show at this particular museum.
I have long cherished Hitchens’ work, for three reasons in particular. One is for its distinctive combination of the impressionistic and the precise. What initially looks to be entrancingly coloured but loosely applied, turns out on close inspection to be meticulous in its detail and arrangement. Figures, flora, water, the lay of the land are photographic memories, each in their true place yet absolutely translated through imagination.
The second is his use of white. Hitchens did not fill the canvas if he did not want to. Many of his paintings have white spaces in between the blocks and sweeps of colour, where he did not paint. A label in the exhibition refers to them as punctuation points. They are points where the paint did not need to be. The painter was freed from the obligation to fill every inch of the canvas, painting only what he wanted to see painted. It gives the works their particular natural quality (as in pertaining to nature). It also makes one think of the artifice, so that one senses the painting as a thing in the process of composition as well as the completed work. It made me think of George Dunning’s sublime animation, Damon the Mower (1973) – perhaps the quintessential garden film – where the animator’s interpretation of the Andrew Marvell poem shows you the individual drawings that make up the animation, with their changes of number and even traces of the tape holding each image in place as it is photographed.
The third reason for cherishing his work is aspect ratio. Hitchens’ paintings come in all the usual shapes and sizes, but he was particularly drawn to narrow, panoramic views of landscape (interestingly, Wenceslaus Hollar’s famous 1647 panoramic view of London from Bankside is said to have been drawn in part from the tower of St Mary’s at Lambeth). The eye is drawn across a mysterious, varied view, whose outlines and depths only gradually become apparent as the viewer solves the puzzle of where they are. Hitchens aimed to recreate the way in which we follow a Western text from left to right, or read a piece of music. He particularly encouraged the idea of reading his paintings in musical terms, with the track of the eye responding as to musical movement. He complained that the more conventional dimensions of art works did not correspond to how the eye saw things, and as his career progressed not only did his paintings becoming increasingly abstract but they seem all the more to adopt the horizontal view.
The wish to have a painting read as one might follow music is rather too much an artist’s conceit, since relatively few of us read music, yet we can all read a painting. Instead the long, horizontal view, scanning the landscape before us, speaks to a more primitive urge. ‘Human beings are foragers’, says Simon Ings in his compelling book The Eye: A Natural History (2007), ‘we take a more than usual interest in what things are’. The eye developed originally, Ing says, ‘not to detect objects, but to detect their motion’, as we seek out a mate, our next meal or the threats that lie in our way. We are particular attuned to detecting movement within a variegated background, so we can detect that predator before it detects us. We scan for our security.
This detection of motion is fundamental to how we comprehend moving pictures (the science is complicated, but essentially it’s down to fusing stationary objects into moving objects through what is known as the phi phenomenon). We are on the lookout for motion, even where all appears still. So it is that there is a connecting biological imperative, in motion picture history terms, between the static panorama, the panoramas that were rolled past people’s eyes (particularly popular in the 19th century) and the motion within of cinema, Hitchens’ horizontal views being pure Cinemascope. It’s all in the anticipation of and then the processing of motion, as our mind works ceaselessly on strategies to keep us alive.
Ivon Hitchens’ garden views are pleasing to the eye, but at root they are sublimated terror.
- ‘Ivon Hitchens: The Painter in the Woods‘ continues at the Garden Museum until 15 July 2019
- If you miss the Garden Museum exhibition, no matter – there’s another exhibition opening at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, ‘Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour‘, from 29 June 2019, running to 13 October 2019
- Feel the need to buy a Hitchens? Jonathan Clark Fine Art is the place to go. Handy for background information too
- George Dunning’s Damon the Mower can be seen for free on the BFI Player