Harold Hitchcock

Artist whose visionary paintings embraced the English pastoral tradition

by Michael McNay

From an article first published in the Guardian on Sun 16 Aug 2009

Thundersley, Hitchcock's 1978 recollection of the epiphany he had experienced in the Essex village as a boy.


Harold Hitchcock in 2007.

In 1978 the artist Harold Hitchcock once again painted a scene of Thundersley, in Essex, where, more than 50 years before, at the age of nine, he had experienced an epiphany. It is a village just south of the A127 arterial road, still with a splay-footed shingled spire on the little 14th- or 15th-century parish church, though now brusquely dwarfed by a 1960s nave extension: the whole thing is clutched in the spreading outskirts of Southend and Basildon. Hitchcock, who has died at his home in Devon aged 95, did not see it that way.

It seems improbable that he revisited it before painting the picture. Scarcely even a memory, the painting is a dream. He had stayed in Thundersley with his grandparents as a child, and the visionary experience of watching the early morning sunshine break through the tall elms at the bottom of a long garden determined his career as an artist and remained his guiding inspiration throughout his life.

He had painted the scene once before, in 1929, and the church in the background of the impressionistic canvas is just about recognisable as the parish church, though heightened for grandeur. By 1978 the back garden has become a forest with unearthly light trapped in a glade between towering trees; in the foreground is a white hart that might have stepped straight out of the Wilton Diptych and a young boy carrying blood-red blossoms, a symbol, maybe, of the blood of Christ that could be explained by the dove hovering at the top of the picture above a patch of mist-inflected light which appears to resolve itself into a ghostly apparition of Christ.

Hitchcock's Florentine Interior, 1989.

It is not an everyday experience to travellers on the A127 today, and even in the 1920s it was highly personal as an approach to art. It falls recognisably into the English romantic tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but when these pastoral visionaries threw their spell for a while over the war-bound English artists of the 1940s, men such as Graham Sutherland, John Craxton, John Piper and John Minton, they made something rather more modern of it, though more or less deliberately seceding from the world modernist movement as such. In some of Hitchcock's pastorals, Palmer's manner appears almost untouched.

Hitchcock argued that it was not the artist's job to interpret the world around him, though most artists would respond, surely correctly, that the lifeblood of art is life itself, and that personal vision alone leads to escapism. As it is, Hitchcock's work slipped freely between the extremes of the French 17th-century classicist Claude Lorraine and a touch of 20th-century surrealism – the Hunterian gallery in Glasgow owns a Hitchcock canvas called The Palace of Charlemagne that is an odd cross between Claude and the architect Clough Williams-Ellis's eclectic village of Portmeirion, in Gwynedd.

The Hunterian and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, are the two major British galleries that own work by Hitchcock; the V&A owes its painting to its then director, Sir Roy Strong, an enthusiast for Hitchcock, like the art historian Kenneth Clark (Private Eye's Lord Clark of Civilisation), though their track record on modern art was mildly eccentric.

Despite the derivative elements in Hitchcock's work, that initial ecstasy before the dawn light of Thundersley served him well as his overriding signature. Indeed, in the last years of his life, when he developed brilliant coloured prismatic surfaces to his compositions, the loss of the powerful compulsion to recapture the Thundersley experience exposed the fudgy modelling and sentimentality of his figures.

He could have done with a little of the steely approach to appearances of his great ancestor on his mother's side, the animal painter George Stubbs. Hitchcock's mother herself was gifted musically, and his paternal grand- father had been a successful wood carver. His father Archibald failed as a hotelier and as a farmer, among other enterprises, but earned his family's bread as a ship's steward.

Born Raymond Hitchcock and brought up in Camden Town, north London, he displayed a vivid imagination in words as well as drawing, and held his siblings in thrall with his stories. In the 1930s, he made his way by working, unhappily, designing posters in London for Universal movies. As a conscientious objector during the second world war he volunteered for bomb disposal work with a non-combatant unit. While he was billeted in Lancaster he met a young woman, Rose, lost contact, bumped into her again by chance in the Finchley Road in London after the war, and in 1949 married her.

After the war he gained a niche reputation among well-connected people who loved his work. One of his fans was, not surprisingly, the poet of exotic dreams, Walter de la Mare; another was the Duke of Bedford, who gave him a show at Woburn. He took the name Harold, and in 1964 a rich friend, Monty Franks, sponsored him to work full time as a professional artist. Even so it was touch and go: by this time the Hitchcocks had a young family. But he never again needed to work as a commercial artist, and during the second half of his life he developed a big American following for his painting.

Rose died before him, and he is survived by their three children, Vivienne Leonard and Albert.

 Harold Hitchcock, artist, born May 23 1914; died August 8 2009

From an article first published in the Guardian on Sun 16 Aug 2009