Ivon Hitchens

Study for the Mural Painting at Cecil Sharp House, London


Not on display

Ivon Hitchens 1893–1979
Oil paint, tempera and pastel on canvas
Support: 1092 × 3321 mm
Presented by the artist 1977

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Wax oil medium, charcoal and wax oil pastel on canvas 43 × 130 15/16 (109.2 × 332.1)

This entry has been corrected and approved by the artist.

In September 1940, Cecil Sharp House, the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was partially demolished by a bomb which destroyed most of the upper storey and part of the Main Hall of the building. When re-building began, early in 1950, it was decided not to replace the Musicians Gallery, which had been the major decorative feature of the original Main Hall and the Architect, John C. Eastwick-Field friba, proposed a mural as a fitting alternative. Late in 1950, Mr Douglas Kennedy, at that time President of the Society, invited Ivon Hitchens to undertake this work. The re-built Cecil Sharp House was opened in June 1951 and the mural unveiled four years later, on July 1 1954.

Hitchens worked on three church frescoes between 1919 and 1921 but the Mural at Cecil Sharp House was the first and largest of only three public commissions he has undertaken since the last war. (The others being, ‘Late Summer Parkland with a Lake’ (1959), painted for Nuffield College, Oxford and the mural painting ‘Day's Rest, Day's Work’ (1963), at the University of Sussex, Brighton).

Painted on eleven separate canvas sections in the artist's Sussex studio, the mural was, at the time of its completion, the largest work of its kind in the country and measures 16 × 69ft (being 20ft high in the centre section).

Before commencing work on the final project, Hitchens prepared a number of photographs and drawings* and then, with the aid of a scale model, erected in his studio, proceeded to make approximately twenty preliminary studies; T02212, T02213 and T02214 are examples of these. In two letters (3.7.78 and 12.7.78) to the compiler the artist wrote:

‘You rightly surmise that T02213 was done first and that T02214 is nearer the finished work ... Throughout the whole creation, I made journeys up to London to hold up in position, full scale coloured sections on tracing paper to test visual needs. Both T02213 and T02214 were executed in Robersons wax oil colours, possible corrections and odd bits of drawing in wax oil pastel... the black and white “cartoon” drawing would have been used for Whitechapel 1954 and Southampton 1964... All these large ones (i.e. including the black and white cartoon) would have been variously worked on during that period around 1950. T02213 would have been the first of the three.’

Asked whether either T02213 or T02214 had ever been exhibited - (an undated oil study for the Mural, measuring 48 × 120 inches appeared in the Arts Council Exhibition, Three Masters of Modern British Painting in 1961 (9)) - Hitchens has replied that although he has no records to confirm this, T02214 might possibly have been included in this exhibition.

The three studies were measured up to scale and in T02213 and T02214 the artist has represented the panelling and central doors of the hall of Cecil Sharp House, thus indicating the final placing of the mural panels.

The mural represents an arcadian landscape, and the artist was asked to incorporate groups of figures performing four well known English country dances (Ring Dance and Morris Dancing at left, Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and the Padstow Hobby Horse at right). A woodland setting was deliberately chosen to counteract the urban surroundings of the building. The main areas of colour were organised to take full advantage of the natural lighting, and range from cooler blues and greens on the sunnier West side of Cecil Sharp House, through to warmer shades on the North East Side. Hitchens designed the work in three main sections, glades seen between trees, balancing the more complex activity of the sides with a quieter open centre section. The centre was intended to act as a foil for the centre of the hall, which would often be crowded with dancers, and was originally to have formed the backdrop for a musicians' platform. A subsequent reversal of this plan - the orchestra now faces the mural - came when the work was nearly completed. The artist has pointed out that it was by this stage too late to take this vital alteration into consideration in terms of the purpose and structure of his design.

While the three studies each clearly demonstrate the emergence of the final design, the sharper definition of the glade of trees in the left hand section of T02214 and its overall tonal organisation most closely anticipates the finished painting. It is also interesting to note the appearance of a ‘sun face’ (top right) above the figure of the Hobby Horse in T02213 - a motif which was not used in the mural itself.

When the mural was completed, the artist outlined its pictorial content and the chief considerations governing its design in a booklet published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (Some Notes by Ivon Hitchens, Describing his Mural Painting in the Main Hall at Cecil Sharp House. 1954).

* In 1977 the artist generously presented a large quantity of this preliminary material to the Tate Gallery, including sketches, photographs and 22 figure studies for the mural. These have now been deposited in the Archive.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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