In 1939 Ivon Hitchens and his wife, Mary (Mollie as she was familiarly known) had purchased six acres of woodland (complete with a small pond) at Lavington Common, near Petworth, in Sussex, and had moved there to live in a caravan to which he later added a studio and other buildings. He was to live and work here in rural seclusion for the next forty years. A son, John, was born in April 1941, and the infant with his mother is the subject of this painting, which is related to numerous sketchbook drawings of the mother and child and a number of other paintings of that and related subjects. (The Tate's Interior, Boy in Bed (TO3126), from the following year, is set in the newly-built studio, not yet in existence in mid-1940 when Effect: Mother and Child was painted, and is spatially more easily readable.) Hitchens submitted the painting for exhibition at the London Group annual exhibition, held at the Cooling Galleries in October-November 1940. He had been a member of the Group, to which many of the leading British artists of the time belonged, since his election in 1931, and continued to show at its exhibitions at least until the late 1960s.
The first impression the painting gives is of a summary evocation, of a quickly brushed and drawn image, a register of emotional perception and tenderness of feeling towards the subject, a response itself to the maternal tenderness displayed by the woman towards her infant. This is, in part, an effect (I note that word in the title) of a set of formal devices that engender a sense of enclosure: to the left, a fall of blue shadow into the grey space of the room (containing a tripod table with a bowl of yellow flowers), and a stark upright stile of a door into another space, around which the grey wraps to envelop the child, as if the latter were conjured out of air; to the right a dark brown wall, a thin blue division and a pink corner-space, with a picture on the wall, or perhaps a window, behind the central subject. The mother herself encloses the child, her enlarged hand a sign of protection.
With the exception of the 'blue shadow' and the 'flowers', these suggestive shapes, none of which, except for the mother and child, is a definite enough description of the spaces and objects for us to be certain of their identities, are proposed as having distinct vertical edges, as, indeed, do walls, windows and doors. The mother and her child, and the comfortable armchair on which she sits, are, by contrast, composed (that is the right word) of softly rounded ovals, the shapes of womb, breast, belly, head, and here, of course, of the body and chubby legs of the suckling infant. We are presented with a simple series of discrete colour chords in a total musical moment of complex subtlety. Brown, pink, magenta, yellow-green, orange, flesh tint, ochre, grey, yellow-white, a decisive vertical stroke of grey-black, mid-blue, grey, mid-brown, orange: only the daffodil yellow of the 'flowers' provides an accent of sharp primary colour against this succession of mostly gentle tonalities. As in musical chords, colour tonalities are harmonically combinatory of chromatic primaries. In his A Painter's Notes (1908) Matisse wrote: 'When I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of all the tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition.' The musical 'effect' in this case is rich and soft, emotionally plangent.
Both of these accounts of the painting, the first descriptive of the scene and mood, the second largely a formal description of colour and painted shapes, are valid: indeed one might say that they are complementary; and their congruence says something important about Hitchens's characteristic method and mode. For Hitchens was one of the most quietly radical British artists of his time, steeped in post-impressionist and modernist French painting. Not many English painters in 1940 could have entertained so strong a presence, as in this picture, of the soft tonal colourism, lightness of painterly touch, and emotive vagueness of figurative forms that characterise Matisse's Nice interiors of the 1920s and early 1930s.
The dual imperatives of Hitchens's avowed but understated modernism were truth to the eye and truth to the painting: 'I am trying to understand' he once wrote, 'the "aesthetic truth" of my subjects. I am merely trying to do what all other painters have done - interpret nature. If the work is untrue it is valueless -- but the kind of truth I see may be a bit different. I cannot know that.' As a landscape artist whose style found its true source in the perceptual incertitude of Cézanne, Hitchens knew that what the painter 'sees' changes from moment to moment, day to day, season to season. He knew too that what the artist 'sees' is inflected by inner feeling, and by the outward contingencies of the moment - a change in the fall of light or of shadow, a turn of the head, the movement of the eyes, a shift of focus - and, moreover, that truth to nature requires the art that composes complex perception to formal expression.
Hitchens defined what I called 'truth to the painting' in a letter to Alan Bowness in 1956: 'A good painter is he who, like a magician, having taken thought, utters the magic words, and conjures up life from within the canvas.' This is doubtless what Hitchens meant when he spoke of the over-riding importance of 'visual sound' in his paintings, without which 'the picture is useless': 'dark-light, warm-cool, up-down, in-out. Circular shapes, square angular shapes. Large sombre areas - short quick notes. Thus all the area of the canvas should be consciously planned in movements as well as representing objects. My pictures are painted to be listened to.' The double square format (a favourite pictorial dimension of Hitchens) gives the lateral space required for the full play of these colour-shape harmonies across the canvas: the eye registers space, 'listens' in time.
We are very grateful to Mel Gooding for preparing this catalogue entry.