The owner of River Fish approached us in connection with obtaining an up to date valuation and appraisal of the painting. It had been acquired by the present owner’s parents in the 1950s, and family belief is that this was from the Leicester Galleries. There is a fragment of a label on the stretcher which appears to be consistent with this. Hitchens was still exhibiting regularly there during the 1950s and thus further research may yield an exact match to a particular exhibition.
Whilst examining the painting, we determined that whilst it was in generally good original condition consistent with its age, there was a small area of paint which was exhibiting some fragility and thus we recommended that a conservator should see the painting and give an opinion. This was done and whilst the area was stabilised, the opportunity was taken to also give it a light clean to remove the accumulated dirt and dust of the years. We also arranged for the glass in the frame to be replaced with a conservation quality anti-UV glass to help preservation and cut down on reflections.
Like his close contemporary and friend John Piper, Ivon Hitchens managed to walk a very fine line. His work is largely concerned with that most traditional of subjects, the English landscape, yet his treatment of it brings the questions and challenges of modernism right to its heart. In Hitchens’ paintings we are presented with a vision that we understand, yet he never needs to resort to unnecessary detail. He captures the spirit of his subject and, in the same way that we can imagine the creak of the church door depicted by Piper, we know the sounds and smells of the greenery and the atmosphere of the places painted by Hitchens.
River Fish is a painting that is both absolutely Hitchens, but also somewhat unusual. Although apparently not dated, we can assume by comparison with a larger version of the same composition, Balcony with Fish (Private Collection), that it was painted in 1943 and thus dates right to the middle years of WWII. As a symbol of the delight offered by the prospect of the freshly-caught fish for a potential dinner the painting is successful, but in the rationed world of WWII they must have appeared a feast. Their almost miraculous implied appearance from the waters beyond can surely be viewed as resonant of the fecundity of an England still able to supply her people in extraordinarily straitened times, the times of ‘Dig for Victory’.
Whilst we were researching the painting, we knew that an exhibition of Hitchens’ work was being planned by Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Although a popular and well-known artist, it was actually many years since a large solo exhibition of his work has been seen and thus this afforded the chance to re-appraise this significant artist’s place in the art of his time.
After discussions with the curator and the Pallant House team, we were delighted that the painting was going to be included in the exhibition and its subsequent tour to Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham and we handled the loan process on behalf of the owner, allowing Ivon Hitchens’ River Fish to reappear in public for the first time in at least fifty years.