Art & Design Tuesday, December 1st Words by: Bill Tanner, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Major new exhibition to boost Herefordshire artist Brian Hatton

Art & Design Tuesday, December 1st

Major new exhibition to boost Herefordshire artist Brian Hatton

It could be one of the county’s biggest cultural events of recent years.

A major exhibition is planned to bring Brian Hatton home for a long-overdue re-evaluation of his place in British art.

The exhibition - set for April - is intended to mark a century since Hatton’s loss to the First World War aged just 28 and with a talent acknowledged as having the potential to put him amongst the best.

At the time of writing, the continued closure of Hereford Museum and Art Gallery - after the finding of asbestos during renovation work - leaves organisers looking for alternative and appropriate exhibition spaces.

Inherent in that dilemma however is an opportunity to put Brian Hatton before a far wider audience.

Here's why Brian Hatton matters.

Brian Hatton - self-portrait (the Hatton Collection)


Summon her spirit out of sepia – the young widow brought face-to-face with herself as surety that her husband is dead.

For months, Brian Hatton had been “missing” in one of the farthest theatres of the First World War.

His was the body of “an English yeomanryman” recovered by a casualty search team sent out into the scorching, shifting desert sands of Oghratina, Egypt.

Second Lieutenant Brian Hatton, 1st Worcestershire Yeomanry, rode out into those sands sometime on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, purportedly to fetch reinforcements for comrades overwhelmed by attacking Turkish and German troops.

He was never seen alive again.

A tiny picture tucked into a top pocket wallet kept “Biddy” Hatton close to Brian’s heart.

That keepsake picture came back to “Biddy” as confirmation of his death.

A fate sealed by the standard “regret to inform” telegram addressed to 3 The Brooklands, Victoria Street, Hereford, On His Majesty’s Service – no charge for delivery.

“Biddy” had lost her 28-year-old husband of just two years.

Their infant daughter Mary would never know her father.

British art mourned a talent taken too soon - so far from its muse.

Brian Hatton.

Spoken of not in broad brush stokes, but those subtle touches of colour that capture character.

Before talk turned to what more he might have achieved had war not wasted his potential.

A century on from when last seen alive, Brian Hatton is being brought back home.

Under preparation ahead of April next year is a major anniversary exhibition re-introducing the artist to the Herefordshire he drew inspiration from.

And, in his mind, never left.

Pastoral scenes, portraits, rustic ruminations; much of Hatton’s prolific output was inspired by observance of everyday life in the county - out of another era.

It is said that Hatton honed his eye from the day he was born at Carlton Villa, Whitecross, on August 12 1887 – an only son to Alfred and Amelia Hatton.

Contemporary anecdotes outline the infant prodigy - never seemingly in need of toys - as having a way with the “symmetry of things about him.”

His mother, so sure of her offspring’s ability, was already ensuring even those fledgling efforts were preserved for posterity.

Aged nine, with the family having moved to Mt Craig, Broomy Hill, Hatton was outstripping accolades accorded a gifted child with a technical skill recognised as instinctive as it was acute.

A year later Hatton exhibited four sketches of a shepherd, sheep and horses at the Royal Drawing Society to take a coveted Gold Star award and tea with society president Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.

By 13, he was showing to the Queen herself ahead of an acclaimed exhibition in Paris.

The likes of Millais, Tenniel, Briton Riviere and GF Watts championed his progress.

The latter predicted a fame for Hatton greater than his own, writing: “it has been given to him to raise the English school of art to a point it has not yet reached.

He should become the greatest artist England has had – there is nothing anyone can teach him.

In 1905, after schooling away in Swansea and tuition at Ewyas Harold vicarage from the Rev A. B. Bannister - later Canon of Hereford Cathedral - Hatton entered Trinity College, Oxford, where routine studies were interspersed with art work.

For a time he studied in Arbroath at the school of George Harcourt and travelled to Egypt for the first time a guest of eminent Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie.

On his return, the coach house at Mt Craig was converted into a studio where he could complete commissions - when not enjoying acclaim in London and Paris.

The outbreak of war found Hatton in Ledbury illustrating the pen-pictures master poet John Masefield drew on for The Everlasting Mercy.

He joined the Worcestershire Yeomanry in August, 1914 as a trooper.

By November that year he had a bride, Lydia May “Biddy” Hatton described, by turns, as a “dancer, teacher, and performer.”

They married by soldier’s licence.

In a letter, Hatton asked for his father’s blessing saying: “We shall need all that we can get.”

They had until October 1915 together.

Then, a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Hatton went abroad – as a volunteer because the regiment, at the time, was not taking married men.

Deployment took him back to Egypt, a far theatre of the war that brought British and Commonwealth forces into conflict with Ottoman Turks and their German allies.

On Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, Hatton’s regiment - and a company of Royal Engineers - was caught in an overwhelming surprise attack at Oghratina in the Suez Canal zone.

A contemporary account - posted to Biddy with the death confirmation – outlines the “hopelessly outnumbered” yeomen making “a first class fight of it”.

By the end, the few left living were said to be “surrounded by dead”.

Hatton was not found amongst either having volunteered to ride into the sand-hills and seek out reinforcements.

His name is now perpetuated amongst those hills, at a war cemetery close to where his body was found, with the citation “a fine artist and a gallant soldier”.

Hatton’s loss was significant to a British art scene shaking off the last remnants of mid-Victorian complacency.

Sargent… Brangwyn, Orpen, Augustus John…. all contemporaries to whom he was compared.

Hatton was seen as having much to offer with his deceptively clear-sighted realism - an “all-round” artist, as successful in portraits and imaginative work as he was with landscapes and animal studies.

A patriot to the time of the day, Hatton applied his gift, without embellishment, in finding poetry within the common place close to home.

This simplicity of muse is inherent in titles such as: “Waggoner and horse at Warham”, “Jenny-ring at Warham”, “Man with horses”, “Gypsies”, “Man with cows”, “A Farm Worker”, “Harrowing”, “Harvesting”, “The Poacher”, “A Navvy”, “The Waggon”, “A winter morning on Lugg Meadows”, “A turnip field at Breinton”.

A friend was to write of how Hatton’s “love of the country, and of a horse and a day with the hounds, help make his heart sweet and sane.”

Portraiture came to extend beyond family and friends to faces prominent in the county.

Whether working in oils, pastel, water colour or pencil, Hatton was said to displayed a versatility with features that prompted character out of the most stoic of sitters.

When Hatton took his talent to war life was still as he saw it, but the resulting works barely conceal revulsion for the barbarity unfolding around him – it seeps out of the simplest of pictures.

As it seeps out of that sepia tinged pocket wallet picture that brought a young widow face-to-face with herself as surety that her husband is dead.


 The Devoted Sister

“I have accomplished all I set out to do and now I can depart in peace.”

The words are those of the late Marjorie Hatton, attributed on her endowment of a gallery as an act of extraordinary devotion to her brother Brian.

Almost the entire known extent of Hatton’s work was housed there – around 1,000 paintings, drawings, prints and papers.

Marjorie - who often sat as a subject for her elder brother - made his legacy her own life’s work.

It fell to her to ensure the family’s very special wish came true with the creation of a permanent home for the Hatton collection in the county to which and his art were bound.

The first posthumous Hatton exhibition was hosted at the then Hereford Art Gallery in 1925.

Several others were held subsequently, but it took Marjorie until 1973 to see the building, endowment and opening of The Hatton Gallery as an annexe to Hereford’s then Churchill House museum.

Marjorie’s “peace” was to last another eight years until her death in 1981 .

By then, Brian Hatton had been the subject of a biography based on prolific letters preserved by his mother allowing the artist to effectively tell his own story from schooldays spent away in Swansea and study at Oxford to his painting periods in Paris and London and finally through to graphic accounts of war.

Just shy of 20 years later, the then Herefordshire Council was ready to shut Churchill House down.

With this architectural aristocrat in all too obvious decline both the museum – home to a nationally envied costume collection amongst other treasures – and gallery were regarded as run down and no longer “cost effective”.

Hindsight may prove a little kinder to the resulting conflict which, at the time, was pitched as a fight for the county’s cultural soul.

That fight was fierce – but brief.

Driven by Marjorie’s spirit, an alliance of antiquarian and artistic interests called the council out on a “betrayal of a legacy”.

The council claimed the legacy was best served by a move to its then new lottery funded museum resource and learning centre where it could be kept under climate control and made available for viewing by appointment or on-line.

Within months the council had won and the Hatton Collection had its new home in Friar Street where it is kept today.

And where it will stay for the foreseeable future as the future for the county’s £3 million heritage collection as a whole is considered under a council savings programme that pitches cultural services as cost neutral within two years.

Yet still, the Hatton Collection has the capacity to surprise.

Just ahead of Christmas last year the wraps were off a special delivery to Friar Street revealing works long thought lost time and distance.

The selection of sketches, watercolours, landscapes and portraits had been sent over from the USA – specifically Cocoa Beach, Florida – having circulated around the Shaler family that Brian’s daughter Mary married into.

These new additions will be part of the upcoming exhibition.

Mary was destined to flourish for herself as a prima ballerina - the toast of capitals and companies across Europe – before she spurned fame at the onset of the Second World War to train another generation of dancers through her mother’s academy and city schools.

No-one could ever claim to really know what drove this still young women on to a less glittering path.

Her reasons went with her to the USA in 1946 and eventual marriage to one Cecil Shaler, editor and proprietor of the Crystal Lake Herald, Crystal Lake, Illinois.

By 1955, May had joined Mary’s family in Crystal Lake, having re-married only to suffer a second blow when this husband died in 1944.

May was, however, to outlive her daughter, reaching 97 before her death in 1984.
She had lost Mary nine years earlier.

Pneumonia took her life in 1975 at 59.

Mary had taken a selection of Brian's works with her to the USA.

A thought to be first oil portrait of May was amongst them – and also amongst those that came back.

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