Photo Gallery: Paintings donated to Fenland man set to sell for £1million

Ivon Hitchens . 
£1 million of art found in a woodcutter’s cottage. Ivon Hitchens . £1 million of art found in a woodcutter’s cottage.

Friday, January 24, 2014
2:11 PM

An 85 year-old retired Fenland woodcutter who worked for Ivon Hitchens on the artist’s West Sussex estate has put up for sale £1m worth of original paintings which were a gift from his employer and friend.

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The paintings have had pride of place in Ted Floate’s cottage at Whittlesey since Hitchens death in 1979 but now he has decided to sell them.

The 10 previously unseen oil paintings will go on display for three weeks from March 15 at the Goldmark gallery in Uppingham, Rutland, with collective price tags totalling in excess of £1m.

Jay Goldmark, the gallery’s managing director, said he was in touch with Mr Floate about being interviewed “but you have to remember he is now an elderly man and has only recently decided to sell these paintings”.

Mr Goldmark said he was sure Mr Floate must have realised the appreciating value for the works of art but “probably felt it was now time to sell them.

“Hitchens painted mainly woodland scenes and part of Mr Floate’s work was to keep the woods on the estate in suitable condition to be painted,” said Mr Goldmark.

“He has now decided to share them with the world.

The pair, who first met in 1956, became close companions until the artist’s death. In addition to working on the artist’s estate, Mr Floate also helped with framing paintings and technical advice.

Peter Khoroche, the world’s leading authority on Hitchens, has written an essay on the paintings and the friendship, which will be exhibition catalogue.

Interest in Hitchens continues to strengthen. An Ivon Hitchens oil painting sold at Christie’s for more than £250,000.

In his accompanying article on the gallery’s website Mr Khoroche describes how the artist and the woodcutter first met.

“West Sussex woodland on a wintry day early in 1956. Snow on the ground. The stillness is broken only by the sound of two men sawing and trimming chestnut saplings to make stakes,” writes Mr Khoroche. “It is time for them to knock off for lunch. The fire, which they’ve made to keep themselves warm, is left to smoulder until they return.

“Hardly have they gone when a thin figure, well wrapped in woollen scarves, with three layers of jumper under his poacher’s jacket and a beret perched on his head, emerges from the trees, takes one look at the gently burning fire and scurries away. “He soon returns with a large kettle of water and promptly douses the fire, then waits for the two hapless woodsmen to reappear.

“No one would ever have called Ivon Hitchens careless: his closest friends sometimes dared to tease him about his excessive caution. True enough, the dense woods that surrounded his home did, especially in a dry summer, present a fire risk, and a forest fire would have quickly destroyed not only his house but also the hundreds of paintings densely stacked within it.

“Even so, the two experienced foresters had taken the precaution of lighting their fire in an open space entirely surrounded by snow. They explained this patiently and a potentially inflammable situation was quickly damped down. In fact, friendly feelings so far prevailed that Mr. Hitchens immediately engaged one of the men, Ted Floate, to come and thin out the tops of some birches next to his house, Greenleaves, hidden away in the woods close by.”

And that was the beginning of a remarkable friendship that was to last for the next 23 years.

Mr Khoroche adds: “The most unexpected outcome of this little incident is the painting, Two Woodsmen, which Hitchens made of it soon afterwards and which he presented to Ted.

“Before long Ted Floate—quick, good-humoured, with twinkling eye and burly build—proved himself adept at maintaining in a paintable state the dense woodland of oak, chestnut, pine and birch, the overarching tunnels of rhododendron and the ever encroaching sea of bracken in the magic domain of Greenleaves.”

Mr Floate was also closely involved in Hitchens painting Sussex Dell with Footbridge.

“He set Ted to rebuilding a half-rotten wooden footbridge, which he then introduced into the foreground of his painting as a horizontal element that links the two halves of the composition,” says Mr Karoche. Mr Floate also figures in one of the artist’s drawings - wielding his axe as a professional forester, the work of art being presented to the newly founded University of Sussex.

Together with Mr Floate, the artist went in person to install it in the refectory, where it still hangs.

By now Hitchens was 70 and found it difficult to keep his balance on top of a stepladder, and so entrusted to Mr Floate the job of doing the small amount of retouching that became necessary once the four panels of the mural had been hung. Mr Karoche writes: “While he was doing this, two workmen entered the hall, stopped and stared at the complex, highly abstract painting, then asked the old gaffer at the foot of the ladder what he thought it was all about.

“’Don’t ask me. Ask the artist’, retorted Hitchens, pointing at Ted high above, paintbrush in hand.”

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