Extracts from Peter Iden: Versions of the Downland

* Extract from the chapter 'Peter Iden - Occupation Painter' by David Page

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.