My history hero: Chris Packham chooses Ivon Hitchens

“If you look at Hitchens’ paintings, they are the colour of southern England in summer and autumn. As far as I’m concerned he’s up there with the greats like Turner and Constable”. Chris Packham, naturalist and television presenter, explains why he chose British artist Ivon Hitchens as his history hero

British Artist Ivon Hitchens. (Image by Bridgeman)

Ivon Hitchens was a British painter best known for his panoramic landscapes created from blocks of colour. He started exhibiting in the 1920s and became part of the London Group of artists in the 1930s. During the Blitz, he was forced to move to Petworth, Sussex, where he spent the rest of his life.

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When did you first hear about Ivon Hitchens?

My mother would take me to Southampton Art Gallery and there is a painting there by the artist Paul Nash. It was that which, in my late teens, led me to discover Ivon Hitchens. The two of them were friends and hung out together and, while there are parallels, their work is different: one is known for his war paintings and the other [Hitchens] for his visually striking but unorthodox landscapes.

What kind of person was he?

Although severe appendicitis made him unfit for active service, living through two world wars would have been traumatic for anybody. After being bombed out of his studio in Hampstead, London, during the Second World War, he moved to a caravan in woodland near Petworth in Sussex. Here he fell in love with his new rural home. Yes, he would have heard the Luftwaffe flying overhead en route to London but it was otherwise a very peaceful place, as it still is today.

What made Hitchens a hero?

What I admire about him is the ability he had to picture the British countryside in such a different light, and to visualise things which most people can’t see. He reinterprets the landscape and opens our eyes to a different way of seeing it – and as a naturalist I find that tremendously exciting.

What was his finest hour?

He had many. His 1940s/50s paintings were slightly more figurative and you can identify structures in the landscape quite easily. But Hitchens then underwent a transformation and his work became a lot more abstract – big, bold brush strokes and blocks of colour. By the 1960s/70s, the world was, generally speaking, a more optimistic place and he reimagined his earlier landscapes, making greater use of brighter colours. This gives his later pictures a very different feel. I like both periods. I find earlier works such as the ‘Winter Walk’ series inviting and warm, and can relate to them; but I’m also excited by his almost psychedelic-like later work.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He was a member of the London Group of Artists, who were founded in 1913 to challenge the conservatism and domination of the Royal Academy [of Arts]. I’m always a bit suspicious about people forming cliques – I’m not a club man – and find it a bit odd that he joined such an organisation.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I suppose that like him I’m always looking at the environment and countryside around me for something new. He was looking for colour and form, I’m trying to figure out how it works.

Do you think he deserves to be better known?

Definitely. There have been retrospectives of his work but I would hazard a guess that most people have never heard of him. It’s such a shame because if you look at his paintings they are the colour of southern England in summer and autumn. As far as I’m concerned, he’s up there with the greats like Turner and Constable.

If you could meet Hitchens what would you ask him?

I wouldn’t ask him a thing. I’d just be happy standing behind him. He worked in the field rather than the studio. I’d look over his shoulder and watch as he re-envisaged the landscape.

Chris Packham was talking to York Membery. Chris Packham is a naturalist and TV presenter best known for presenting the BBC nature show Springwatch and its spin-offs. His memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, is out now. He tweets @ChrisGPackham

Listen again: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qxsb

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This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine