I’ve been in Chichester helping to set up a retrospective exhibition of Peter Iden’s paintings of the Downs (Peter died in 2012). Both exhibitions are on the campus of Chichester University; a broadly chronological sequence in the foyer of ArtOne, and an exhibition of his abstract views of Downland, the late work he most cared for, in the Otter Gallery. The latter exhibition runs until 26 July, but the former, which supports it, closes earlier on the 6th July. The book, Peter Iden: Versions of the Downland, contains sixty pages of images and information (21cm square). It is published by the Estate of Peter Iden, at £15, and can be ordered at EstateofPeterIden@gmail.com What follows is one chapter from the book.
I first met Peter in Chichester in 1984 at one of Bridget Woods’ Life Drawing evening classes at Chichester College. (Jane German, who became my wife, had already known him for some years). It was immediately obvious that he was an outstanding draughtsman, who could, if he wanted, draw a line right round a figure in one unhesitating movement, without the pencil leaving the paper. Then he would put the volumes in with one or two strokes and wiggles of a water-colour brush. Much of this ability must have been innate, but a training in Graphics – he would have preferred Fine Art – and some years as an architectural draughtsman, had sharpened his ability.
When I first met him, he was producing topographical pen, pencil and watercolour sketches based on meticulous but fluent drawing, of town- and landscape, recapitulating the origins of English Landscape painting as they occurred in Girtin to Crome and Cotman. He had in 1969 embarked on the first of what was to become a series of annual exhibitions of work in Chichester, which later provided the major part of his income. With the advent of CAD (Computer Aided Design) architectural draughtsmen became largely redundant, though Peter remarked that he dropped that work before it dropped him. Although he was a fine craftsman in this area, he did not enjoy it.
It is a remarkable fact that he supported himself as an artist by selling his art to a devoted local public (which continually grew). This is very rare. Most artists today keep themselves alive by teaching, lecturing, or some other occupation: Peter did it the hard way, surviving amazingly, for five decades, mainly on his artistic work.
He exhibited for some years with the Royal Institution of Painters in Watercolour, and at the Royal Academy, but the annual show in Chichester remained his focus and his main source of income.
Peter travelled, spiritually and conceptually, a very long way in a few decades. Water-colour soon became too light to carry the power of his work: he moved into oils, gaining control of the new medium in a few weeks: this enabled him to produce bigger, bolder pictures. The move towards a more abstract language was intensified, he said, by an extended period of ill-health at the end of the ’90s. His work gradually felt for the underlying shapes in the landscape, with an increased sensitivity to the physical feel of the paint on the surface, and the use of colour in its own right, looking back to pictorial ancestors like Ivon Hitchens or Peter Lanyon. In 1952 John Berger described Lanyon’s work as being ‘not of the appearance but the properties of a landscape,’ a description which defines a whole new category of landscape painting, broadly emerging after World War Two, of which Peter Iden became a leading practitioner.
By the end of his life he had ‘put to one side’ the meticulous ability he was so well endowed with, in favour of painting as a journey, full of bold strokes, scrapes and shunts, and powerful pigment breaking away from the local colour of the Downs in a seemingly inexhaustible re-discovery of them. His later versions were more Zen portraits of the Downs than postcards.
All this was not achieved without pain and struggle. In 2001 he wrote ‘Nobody guesses the courage that each work takes’ and seven years later: ‘After 40 years I won’t give up trying, though it certainly doesn’t get any easier.’ He abandoned earlier attempts to formalise his landscapes in favour of a more distanced mode employing gatherings of rods and ribbons against tonal areas, angled against the vertical and horizontal axes, generally centrifugal, usually set against a notation of the sky-line and the sky itself. The colour, the tonal masses and the juts and darts of line create the particular feeling of the landscape he was concerned with at that time.
This work constitutes a dialogue between an artist and a landscape, as intimate as that between Constable and the Dedham area. As in Constable’s case, each painting was a complete statement in itself, but was at the same time part of a sequence of intimations which draw collective power from continuously amazing insights. Amberley, Goodwood, the Arun, Didling Church and the stretch of downland behind it, Halnaker Hill – no one could have felt their way more lovingly round a terrain than Peter did with the South Downs.
Things were never easy, though. In 2002 he wrote:
I’m so disappointed with my work to date. One or two things emerging, but no pattern, and can’t seem to get launched. I’ve been on one or two wonderful walks recently, which may kindle something. March is a very non-committal month I feel, but recent warm days seem balmy. Butterflies out on Amberleywild-brooks – quite unbelievable. All seems well on the health front, but I get impossibly tired.
One of the problems of his reliance on the annual Chichester exhibition for the majority of his sales was that he established a devoted following for a certain kind of art. While his idiom changed substantially, to make a living he still had to provide the kind of painting, in form and content, which enthused his supporters, alongside the increasingly abstracted art which enthused him. His annual exhibition rarely contained fewer than 100 works, and his financial stability depended on the sale of small items, generally local views, carried out in a vigorous traditional style. He needed (he wrote) to produce many small pieces ‘which are fun to do, but are also limiting and tiresome. As they are the only things that sell, I’ve become a slave to them.’ In 2003 he wrote: ‘My heart isn’t in the small work any more and it shows.’
The approach to the annual exhibition was always a stress point: ‘I am panic-stricken about my next show …with the usual rush of pot-boilers although I have 2 doz left over from July, and I want to do a few whacky large ones.’
When Messum’s Gallery in Cork Street, London, offered him a ‘small one-man exhibition’ (June 2003) he wrote ‘..it puts paid to [a visit to] Cornwall for a bit but otherwise I’m very excited’. His work was in fact shown in several substantial shows there. However, the much-hoped-for financial security that London might have provided never materialised. In June 2005 he wrote:
This has been an awful year so far, for me, having earned barely a £1000 since last December…I can’t help feeling I’m in the wrong system! ..it obviously means that I didn’t earn enough for my efforts, from London….
In fact I prefer to go my own way again, & be able to sell cheaper down here. I don’t want the anxiety of it all.’
The ‘whacky large ones’ mentioned above were the increasingly abstracted Downs landscapes which were his passion. ‘Like you’ he wrote in 2005, ‘my mind is set now on working on a bigger scale (it comes from working for London)’ Large is a relative term – his abstracted pictures, usually in square format, were rarely bigger than 61 x 61 cm. This was mainly due to the tiny space he worked in. The work room in his flat was about 12 foot square, but since around the walls it held his easel, all his paints, brushes, tools, drawing material, current and spare canvasses, books and photographs (along with CD player and earphones), the actual central workspace was perhaps only 6 foot. The only way to appraise the painting in progress was to back out of the door.
Peter’s ‘large pictures’ are by contemporary standards modest, and might be thought to be constricted. But once you are in one of his pictures there are no limits to the view. He was not a solemn person: if you met him in the street you would not know that he was a visionary. He was funny, friendly and self-deprecating, and although he was never a good businessman he was that other thing, a fine artist. He loved the Downs, and they loved him back. He was a familiar character pottering around the centre of Chichester with one eye on the sky, or returning from Arundel with a rucksack on his back. For his friends he was deeply loveable. To them, and to everyone else, his pictures now speak for him.