Wood, Sand, Stone

Abstract landscapes by John Hitchens

Sussex artist John Hitchens has recently opened an exhibition at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, near Chichester. He displays a collection of his recent abstracts works on wood, sand and stone, exploring the local landscape in colour and pattern. I sat down with him at his studio near Petworth to discuss the exhibition and what these works are really all about. 

There is possibly no more apt place to be showing this body of work. Connection to not just the landscape, but this landscape, is central to everything John is doing. The whole place echoes John’s work in a way that brings it to life. The museum houses over 1000 years of history, integrated into the landscape of rolling hills, gardens of wildflowers and a duck pond. The function of the museum is to be a centre of Sussex heritage, so John’s works feels at home here. The room, in a building whose earliest elements date from the 16th century, has low ceilings but still manages to feel spacious. It is uncluttered, the works have space to breathe, and with that each one speaks more loudly, more clearly. Even the room itself parallels the work. Wooden beams on the ceiling play with the John’s painted wooden uprights. The terracotta flooring harmonises with John’s warm brown tones. Outside the gallery you are situated within the sprawling fields and wilderness that John paints. Outside plays with inside; wood and stone are encased in wood and stone. 

The pieces themselves are simple, quiet musings on the natural world. Earthy tones of brown and red are inspired by his wife Ros’ weavings. They are fully abstract works on pebbles, wooden uprights carved from tree branches, or canvases coated with sand. They have the look of aboriginal Australian art but this is incidental. They are similarly based on the land, but from John’s observations from his home in the South Downs rather than the sun-bakes planes of down under. Dots and lines are like the ploughed ruts of a field seen from above, or layers of rock formed atop one another, or snail trails, or ancient stone circles, or cut stems. Rough textures of bark or sand play with smooth stones and fluid lines. They are deeply visual, even sensory, inviting the viewer to spend time with each unique piece and notice how shapes and colours interact. We are able then, to see with the same careful eye, the same considered attention, with which John sees the world.

To anyone who know John’s earlier work these pieces seem to be something of a contrast. However, those atmospheric, hazy landscapes from the 1960s to 1980s now displayed at Moncrieff-Bray Gallery are not the sea change they appear to be. His work has been on an exploratory journey over course of a lifetime. He has arrived at this style of abstraction through a continuous desire to question, to expand, to try new things and follow new ideas. Hailing from a family of painters, no mention of John’s name is ever far from his father Ivon’s or Grandfather Alfred’s. Both successful painters, John has been building on, or rather alongside, their reputations his whole career. As a young artist in his twenties John painted landscapes that are beautifully simple abstractions, impressionistic renderings of mountainous or wooded scenes. Then, feeling trapped beneath the vast blue expanse, he began pushing the sky out of the frame. These works from the 1970s and 80s of woodlands on long, thin canvases particularly garnered comparisons with his father. John was keen to point out the differences with his father’s work, and that he came to this style through his own experimentation rather than by following some formula. As he said to me, there is no satisfying those people who seek the comparison with his heritage line: either he is following, even copying his family, or rebelling against them. He spoke very casually about the relationship with his father’s work and even the man himself, calling him Ivon more often than ‘father’. He dismissed the comparison as ‘a line’ that people use, but nothing more. To him, he was neither for nor against his family, but developing alongside and in between.

Indeed, there is an ease with which John paints, and speaks about his paintings. He is unpretentious. His route into abstract works was one of simple exploration; asking questions and following the answers through fully. When I asked what drew him towards abstraction, he took a beat and simply said, ‘It just happens.’ He experimented with different ideas and abstraction is what stuck, but all follows from what came before. He has forged a path of progression, continually taking steps forward based on a logic of looking. He notices the smallest details and considers them with an almost meditative approach, building up in layers like strata. It is almost like nature itself, all growing from what was there before, always part of something else, layering on top of one another like the strata of rock echoed in John’s work. Maybe a metaphor like that is too intellectualising and is in fact nothing like the casual way John talks about his own work, but that is the beauty of what he achieves, deliberately or otherwise. He taps into the essential, the universal, and allows us to take from it what we like, but to him it is much simpler. He stressed to me the importance of having fun as an artist. His practice is instinctive and is very much about trusting in one’s own ability. It is about taking every idea you can to its conclusion, and putting all your effort into it, because if you do not do it really well you will not know if it was worth it. But above all else he enjoys it. He paints because he loves it. It is serious work, yes, but as he told me, “It’s serious fun. You shouldn’t be painting if you don’t enjoy it.”

That is what is so wonderful about the Weald and Downland Museum sharing John’s work; it is accessible to anyone. It is purely visual, you do not need to know anything about John, or about art, to understand what he is representing. Even if you do not see the links with land art, or crop circles, or weaving, or geology, it does not matter. It is primal, tapping into our desire to see patterns and doing so in colours that are innate and instinctive. At its heart, the exhibition is about opening up ideas and new ways of looking to people and encouraging them to have a go. It is art that anyone can try, and everyone can benefit from. 

Like all of us, John holds multitudes, but if he were to be distilled down he would be, in his own words, a “meditative explorer”. That simple ethos of asking questions and being at peace with the world is what makes these works, and this exhibition, so quietly profound.

Alice Tarplee

Wood – Sand – Stone is on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum until 30 October 2023, open daily 11am-3pm.