Nicholas Hely Hutchinson, b.1955

Hely Hutchinson studied at St. Martin’s School of Art, followed by Bristol, in the 1970s. Both of these were – and are, in their current guises – prestigious institutions. It must be said, however, that neither of them, in the 1970s, would seem to have provided the ideal context for nurturing the art of Hely Hutchinson.

Since the late 1960s and throughout the country, education in art schools and colleges had been radicalised. But, by the 1970s, students and art tutors throughout the land found that the optimistic promises of the ‘60s had been taken over by a society which was, at best, discomfited and, at worst, at political war with itself. At St. Martin’s, in the 1960s, the Modernism of sculptor and tutor, Anthony Caro, proved very influential, and the uplifting example of his primary colours and expansive, linear forms was compelling. By the 1970s, however, there was a more quarrelsome aesthetic debate. Malcolm Le Grice (who taught at St Martin’s for 20 years from 1964) charts the shift from focusing on the work of art, to the act of creating and watching; and, hence, to the growing interdependence of art, performance, film and digital media[1].

In the meantime, Bristol Polytechnic had enjoyed a long and lively history as the West of England College of Art. From the mid-1960s, Ernest Pascoe[2] and Paul Feiler were amongst those responsible for the Fine Art courses. These might be thought to have offered more to Hely Hutchinson’s own vision, for both were preoccupied with a neo-Romantic attempt to grasp the essence, something of the personality, of the English landscape or figure, which they explored in abstract paintings that were constructed, scrubbed and rubbed, until the work emerged as if it had been burnished by the winds of time.

The fact is, however, in Hely Hutchinson’s work, at first – even second – glance, one sees little of struggle, but only ease, simplicity, delight; in his watercolour and gouache paintings, his oils and pastels, one can only take pleasure in the skeins of diaphanous and brilliant colour which have been cast across the picture. In the light of the anxious and challenging artistic practices highlighted above, it may not be surprising that paintings such as those by Hely Hutchinson can sometimes be too readily dismissed by critics. Yet, it is important to remember that artists working in the tradition of Matisse or Dufy – as Hely Hutchinson undoubtedly is[3] – are endlessly engaged in removing signs of struggle. The whole point of such art is to offer a model of human warmth, dreams of contentment, worlds of imagination. But, to chart such a course, against the tide - and not to reveal the effort - is not easy.

Hely Hutchinson comes from an eminent family, whose country house – Knocklofty House, County Tipperary in the SE of Ireland – was sold in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ireland continues to be very important to the painter and its varied light and colour, as well as the warm disposition of its people, remains with him.

'Painting in Ireland? You must be mad!', an artist friend once told Hely Hutchinson.

' “One minute the sun is shining and as soon as you have got the top off the tube of paint, it has started to rain again.” Nicholas Hutchinson had to agree, but said that “The Irish landscape has a constantly changing beauty, often dark and brooding, sometimes gentle and lyrical and when the sun breaks through the colours are quite remarkable.” Hutchinson has painted in many parts of the world, but Ireland, where his paternal family comes from, is where he feels most comfortable and where he “works with a passion"'.[4

The English countryside and sea are also central to Hely Hutchinson’s work: he evokes the lanes, fields, glittering sea and rugged coastline of Dorset, where he now lives. He is also excited by cities and he conjures vivid glimpses of places such as Hong Kong, or Paris, or Venice, with their dense textures of buildings, lights and reflections, the soft luxury of an interior, the warmth of the theatre.

What is so fascinating, however, after the first couple of glances – after tasting the pleasure of the colour, the delight of the light – is that none of Hely Hutchinson's pictures appears to be entirely of this world. There is a dream-like quality, conveyed by the softly-merging hues, the scattered radiance, the slightly distorted perspective and attenuated forms. There is even something subtly disorientating about some of the pictures. Rarely (especially in the earlier work) is there any sign of human presence; or, rather, there are only signs: flowers in a vase, a curtain drifting in front of an open window, a book left on a table, the dog wandering out of the picture, a silhouette disappearing down a road. There is a hint of uncertainty, as well as pleasure, of melancholy as well as contemplation. Like dreams, these images are tentative, touching, exploratory and passionate. They test your confidence in reality.

Since 1984, Hely Hutchinson has established a significant and successful reputation, with regular, sell-out exhibitions of his work in London, Dublin and overseas, notably Hong Kong. He is now represented by the excellent Portland Gallery - an exhibition of his work is promised, there, in summer, 2013.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] See Malcolm Le Grice, ‘History Lessons’, in Frieze, Issue 142, October 2011, for an interesting account of the development of art and education at St. Martin’s.

[2] Pascoe was primarily a sculptor, but also painted, both figurative and abstract forms.

[3] See Hely Hutchinson’s Homage to Matisse, 1987, or, Blue Still Life with Flowers and Matisse Print. The more recent work has evolved into a still more dream-like Romanticism. Still dedicated to rising above the daily rigours, it is as if the artist were trying to catch and keep that moment before a dream washes away.

[4] See catalogue to exhibition at Frederick Gallery, Dublin, 2000.