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Extracts from Peter Iden: Versions of the Downland

* Extract from the chapter 'Later Life' by Mary Iden

I don’t remember exactly when I met Peter, but I do know that I met Ron first at a rather grim social club called 18 plus. It was, I think, in 1977 – my parents had just retired to Chichester, and I was living with them, having helped with the move, so needed to make some new friends. My memory is that I started talking to Peter, mistaking him for Ron, when I came across him sitting in the gutter in Chichester with his watercolour paints. But however it was that we met, I began cycling over to the cottage where he lived in Fishbourne to visit him, eventually so often that Peter’s landlord suggested that I should move in. It was a beautiful place to live, opposite the mill pond, with wonderful walks round the harbour on our doorstep. We were very happy there. The kitchen had an Aga, so that room at least was always lovely and warm, but one particularly cold winter I remember finding that the temperature in our bedroom was around 4 degrees C. For some reason we never used the storage heaters, and our only heat came from an open fire, where we burnt branches that we had scavenged during our walks over the local fields, and driftwood that we picked up on the beach.
We got married in 1980, and a year or so later moved rather reluctantly from Pendrills – we could never afford anywhere half as nice as there - to the house we bought in the centre of Chichester, where I still live. Peter continued with annual exhibitions of his watercolours in Chichester, usually in the Assembly Rooms in North Street. He did almost all his paintings outside; when I first knew him it took a while to get used to the fact that during a country walk he might suddenly want to sit down to paint a view that took his fancy; this could involve a wait for me of anything between half an hour (if things went badly) and 3 hours (if things went well and he was able to finish the painting on the spot). He occasionally did architect’s perspective drawings, which he was very good at, but which he never really enjoyed.
Rachel was born in 1984. I was working in the path lab at St Richard’s, and went back full time after about 6 months. My mother and Peter shared the job of looking after Rachel. This, though, wasn’t a great success; much as Peter loved his daughter, it was difficult for him to fit his work round her. We persevered for about a year, but then we took the plunge and I handed in my notice; it wasn’t possible to work part time in those days. We were relieved to find that we could just survive on his rather precarious income.
In 1992, Peter became ill, and after what felt like an eternity, when it seemed that everyone apart from his doctors could see that there was something seriously wrong with him, he was eventually admitted to hospital and diagnosed as having gut lymphoma. He had an operation, then chemotherapy, and came home weighing only 6 stone! He made what seemed to be a miraculous recovery, and was back walking on the Downs amazingly soon. There was something about having survived that serious illness that seemed to change his, and my outlook on life. We both realised that we needed to get on and do those things that we really wanted to do, rather than wait for ‘the right time’ – and also that life was too short to do things that we didn’t want to do. Peter never did any more work for architects, and also refused to take on commissions – these had always proved to be extremely stressful; once someone told Peter to paint something it seemed to lose its appeal. People could either find a painting that they liked from one of his exhibitions, or they could go without! After a lot of thought, he decided that he might be happier living on his own, so moved to a flat about 10 minutes’ walk away. We saw each other very frequently, he always joined us for Christmas, Easter and birthdays, and stayed with us if he was ill and couldn’t manage on his own. In fact we probably got on better than many conventional married couples.
Once he got over his chemotherapy and was back painting again, Peter began experimenting with some acrylic paints that a friend had recently given him. There was something about acrylics that he found rather unsatisfactory; he soon moved on to oils, which he immediately took to - and his paintings were never the same again.