John Hitchens
John Hitchens

John Hitchens (OB 1947-57)

Deep in the South Downs countryside where he has spent most of his life, surrounded by the beautiful landscape that has always inspired his work, John Hitchens’ studio bears eloquent testimony to an astonishingly fertile creative mind. This is not merely a studio – it is also Greenleaves, the house that was built by John’s father and in which John himself grew up.

Today, its rooms are crammed with an extraordinary variety of work and the accoutrements of John’s trade. Canvases, diptychs, triptychs, sculptures, tapestries, photos, books, brushes and paints jostle for space throughout the house; for some, these would be a life’s output. John, however, apparently still as full of ideas and industry and ideas at the age of 79 as he ever was, is someone whose oeuvre of more than 60 years renders the word ‘prolific’ almost redundant. “I’ve always been an extremely prolific artist,” he says. “What you see in these rooms represents only what I’ve produced over the past twenty years or so, since this place became my main studio – as an extension of my home and studio at Byworth. I remember when I was 40, someone worked out that I’d already sold around 1000 paintings!”

It was almost inevitable that John would follow a calling as an artist. His grandfather Alfred was a noted portrait painter whose career began in the Victorian era; John’s father Ivon was a part of the ‘London Group’ of artists, primarily a landscape painter whose exhibitions included the Venice Biennale of 1956. It was Ivon who gave his son his first paint-box when John was ten years old but his influence on John thereafter was largely restricted to gentle encouragement from the sidelines. “I think that Ivon was secretly pleased that I followed in the family footsteps and he certainly made various materials available to me but essentially, I was self-taught.”

John also followed Ivon down another path – that of a pupil at Bedales. “He had been one of the first of the school’s intake at Steep and I think he sent me there as well because it was the place that he had known and he could see no good reason why I shouldn’t go there as well,” John surmises. “He certainly wasn’t one for reminiscing about his school days, nor about his own father. I arrived at Dunhurst in 1947, essentially the first time that I’d ever been away from home, and I suppose that there was a certain amount of home-sickness at the time.  As an only, and rather solitary, child, who had grown up in a quiet part of the world, I’m sure that it was good for me to be among a large group of people but I was still far from a natural people person. I made an assortment of close friends, however, who remained close to me long after we had all left Bedales.”

Among the Bedalian influences on John’s life, Henry Messingham, the woodwork teacher at Dunhurst, is one that immediately springs to his mind. “He gave me a love of working with tools,” John remembers. “There are a lot of memories that I associate with Henry’s workshop – the mystery of the place, the smell of bowls of linseed oil and the games that we used to play in the fields below. As I went through the school, though, I never managed to get sufficiently enthused to see the ultimate point of learning.”

“I used to enjoy my science lessons at Bedales but on the whole I used to spend my time doing things that weren’t particularly academically focused – I would build a lot of model aeroplanes or draw pictures in my book of psalms,” John continues. “Bedalians are naturally accessible people, in my experience, and I have always enjoyed their company, but I was such a shy adolescent. Overall, I would have to admit that I rather failed my teachers as a student, which was very much my fault, rather than theirs. Art was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only exam at which I did well, but that was very much despite the quality of my work, which I was never particularly happy with. I remember having to work with those wretched poster paints and awful brushes and I’ve always thought since that young artists should have the very best equipment that a school can afford if they are to realise their true potential there.”

Throughout his time at Bedales, John was continuing to learn his craft through the simple expedient of practising it. “There was never a plan for me, not any stage,” he says. “I just started painting and carried on doing it, through the holidays and whenever I could. My naturally creative mother would have been as much of an influence on me as my father and would encourage me – I painted without doing anything as complicated as thinking about the future. Ivon did once suggest mildly to me that I might be spending a bit too much time playing the guitar and listening to music but otherwise it was always painting that occupied my time.”

By the time he left Bedales, John had already sold his first painting. His next step would be to attend what is now the Bath School of Art and Design then at Corsham. “The freedom that I found there was what I enjoyed most,” he remembers. “There was a tutor there, Malcolm Hughes, who put me onto different tools of the trade, such as large rolls of heavy brown paper for painting on, and as time went on, I explored more and more different things. My inspiration originally tends to come from the landscape but one thing leads to another, I find, and I’ve always been interested in exploring the next branch. There are so many areas to explore in art to stay wedded to one style or one medium, some people don’t want to move out of their comfort zone, this has always puzzled me. I can still respond to and recognise the magic of my earlier work without feeling the need to reproduce it year after year. There are so many linked potentials to follow. By doing so, I discover how much all aspects of any work, are actually inter-related.”

Through his father, John was introduced to a variety of figures in the art world who would allow him to exhibit and sell his work. “Ivon’s name opened doors for me, of course, but sometimes it could be a two-edged sword – we were, after all very different artists,” John says. “It was through my father that I was introduced to people like Victor Waddington and later, Marjorie Parr, who was particularly influential and encouraging and used to tell me regularly that my work was ‘selling like hot cakes’.”

John’s work continues to feature in public and private collections throughout the country and he thinks carefully when asked to account for its enduring popularity. “Well, I would like to think that what I do is understandable, lyrical and accessible,” he begins. “Not many people buy a picture unless they genuinely like it – I think it’s rather depressing for an artist if someone buys a picture purely as an investment. When I meet people at an exhibition who tell me that they still have a painting of mine years after they bought it, I always feel a sense of amazement and take it as a great sign of confidence in what I am doing.”

“Of course, I didn’t start painting in order to be able to sell my work,” John continues. “However, selling paintings naturally enabled me to go and paint more and I’ve been rather fortunate in that regard. For me, art has come through an inner need to create, an inspiration to fashion something that wasn’t there before. Controlled passion would be one way of looking at it. My more recent paintings have evolved into a much slower approach – built up over longer periods of time than was possible when I was working out of doors, in front of the subject. The subject/concepts now, are slow distillations of observations absorbed. At all times, though, I know that if I put my heart and soul into a piece, it should shine out to the onlooker. If you don’t put all your love into your work, you won’t get the reaction that you seek and nor will you deserve to.”

Marriage and family have also had a significant and lastingly positive impact on John’s work. “I was very lucky – I found the right person by sheer chance and we then had our own home, our own space, which was obviously very important,” he explains. “I think my wife knew what she was getting into by marrying me – I was painting until two days before our wedding and I started again about two days into our honeymoon!”

John’s two sons, Simon and Rory, would become the next generation of the Hitchens family to be sent to Bedales. “The co-existence and relationships between teachers and students at Bedales had greatly advanced since my day,” John observes. “We always tried to encourage both the boys on every path that they wanted to follow. Rory was always into bicycles, always on wheels, while Simon’s great obsession was rocks and stones and climbing them. I wasn’t surprised when Simon later became a sculptor – with the natural affinity between rock-climbing and sculpture. I was certainly pleased that he became the fourth generation of the family to follow an artistic calling – it happens with other professions like medicine and law and farming.”

Over the years, John has found inspiration for his work in a number of places, most notably the countryside of Wales and the wild Scottish Highlands and serene landscape of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. However, home and heart remain anchored firmly in the South Downs, where John remains apparently as busy as ever. Ideas for his work still fizz from him, he has recently been collaborating on a book covering some of his life’s work. There is an epilogue showing the art produced by his family across four generations. John is also making preparations for a major exhibition of his work, scheduled to open in March 2020. Entitled Aspects of Landscape, the exhibition will be at Southampton City Art Gallery and will trace John’s artistic journey over five decades, from early descriptive paintings to increasingly abstract ways of interpreting landscape, reducing its forms to lines, circles and patterns.

What would that shy, rather solitary Bedalian have made of the life that John has lived and the extraordinary body of work that he has created? “When you’re young, everyone else seems old and you’re not given to much reflection,” John answers. “The world was out there, waiting to be explored, and I did so by going with the flow. If my younger self had seen me now, I don’t think he’d have said all that much. ‘You kept painting, then’ would probably have been the extent of it!”

John was interviewed by James Fairweather in December 2019
Image by A.K Purkiss