Ben and Winifred Nicholson

The fifteen years from 1920 (when they met) to 1935 were formative ones for both Ben and Winifred.  The young couple were finding their way in life and in art, travelling to Lugano, settling in Cumberland, then discovering St. Ives; only in 1935 did Ben Nicholson produce his first White Relief which today sums up his art for so many.

1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)The Dulwich Picture Gallery documents their close working relationship with paintings, often of the same subject, placed side by side, and in this way reveals just how considerable was the influence of each on the other.  It is immediately clear that Winifred was the colourist, her combinations of pigments taking precedence over lines and volumes in defining her subject matter; while for Ben the opposite was true – his focus on linearity, form and structure was to the exclusion of almost all colour in some works.  What is so fascinating is to watch how they began to learn from each other, gradually developing a really powerful and individual artistic language.


The Nicholsons, after their marriage in autumn 1920, spent their winters at Castagnola, above Lake Lugano in Switzerland.  ‘1921-c.1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)’ (above left) shows Ben’s reaction both to modern French art – especially Cezanne and Picasso – and to the Italian primitives such as Piero della Francesca.  The two rigidly vertical trees create a structural grid for the composition, while the focus point of the cube-like red house emphasises the otherwise limited palette.

In contrast, Winifred was at this time painting works such as ‘Cyclamen and Primula’ (c.1922-23, above right).  The pots of flowers which Ben gave her became the focus of an exploration of the relationship between interior and exterior, still life and landscape; but foremost was still her joyous use of colour which forms the compositional lynchpin. However, here too one can see the influence of Cubism in the peaks of tissue paper that fuse with the distant mountains behind.


In the second gallery, a display case introduces some of the pottery of William Staite Murray.  Initially it is difficult to see why, apart from the friendship between Ben and Murray, his work is included in this dialogue between Ben and Winifred; but the sympathetic hanging subtly makes this clear.  Murray was a modernist potter who first exhibited with Ben in 1927, and with both Ben and Winifred in 1928.  Their domestic still life paintings, such as Ben’s ‘1926 (Still Life – L.L.)’ (above), perfectly complemented – in fact were interchangeable with – the actual physical pots created by Murray.

winifred-nicholson-flower-table-pots-1927While Ben flattens perspective and reduces his palette almost to monochrome, with the paint scraped back so that the flat canvas base is revealed, Winifred continues to paint with thick, luscious pigments and a more conventional pictorial space (as in ‘Flower Table: Pots’, c.1927, right).  Here too are exhibited some of her figure paintings of home life – ‘The Warwick Family’ (c.1926) and ‘Father and Son’ (1927), a tender portrait, the baby’s eyes wide and curious as it is cradled by its father at the tea table.  There are no outlines; all form is created purely from the colours and textures of the paint itself.

winifred-nicholson-northrigg-hill-1926In 1923 the Nicholsons purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse in Cumberland which thereafter became their base, though they continued to travel constantly.  In 1926 they met Christopher Wood who came to stay with them in Cumberland in spring 1928, and became the third party in this partnership of intense artistic experimentation.

get_img.phpDuring the late twenties all three attempted the same scene of of the farmhouse, showing their differences of style as well as how closely they worked together.  In ‘Northrigg Hill’ (c.1926, above centre) Winifred focuses on colour, the only definition to the undulating tones of green and brown, blue and grey, being the dark ribbon of the hedges and the flash of pink on the lane (a colour she recommended to Ben, who used it in a still life – ‘1925 (Jamaique)’).  Wood’s ‘Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill)’ (1928, above left) uses gestural, directional brushstrokes and is perhaps the most detailed of the three – although he was increasingly influenced by Ben’s simplification processes.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThese are demonstrated in ‘1930 (Cumberland Farm)’ (right) which reduces the foreground to almost geometrical lines and planes; the house and trees on the horizon line are symbolic focal points of colour and substance amidst the severely rubbed-down canvas.  Another technique Ben developed at this time is seen in ‘1928 (Walton Wood Cottage No.1)’ where he uses great sweeping brushstrokes of a thin pale wash as a background, with faux-naif trees and a horse painted on top with precision.

wn-summerIn summer 1928 the Nicholsons were invited to stay with friends at Feock on the south coast of Cornwall, where they were joined by Wood and his muse, Frosca.  They painted views of Pill Creek, Winifred letting her vivid sense of colour run free – as in ‘Summer’ (1928, left), in which the turquoise water seeps into the background of the floral display to the fore and between the trees and cottages on the far bank.  Ben sketched the scenes of boats and harbours, but was unable to render convincing movement; he finally achieved this in his painting of the same spot, ‘1928 (Pill Creek)’.  This is a sombre and mysterious scene, and uses his characteristic techniques, with swirling brushstrokes of wash animating the background, then extensive rubbing-back to the pale gesso ground, and the shadowy trees and boat simply delineated in pencil.


This painting was probably done from memory back in London, by which time Ben had met Alfred Wallis – as is suggested by the primitive representation of the sailing boat.  All three artists moved on to St. Ives in September 1928, the Nicholsons overlooking the harbour, and Wood on Porthmeor beach.  Their work from this period shows the decisive influence that Wallis had, to a greater or lesser extent, on them all.  For Winifred, this is most evident in ‘Boat on a Stormy Sea’ (1928, above right).  The waves rendered in loose watery brushstrokes shows a wonderful freedom of handling, while the spray of the breakers and around the little boat is thick and opaque, yet with a wonderful sense of movement.

ben-nicholson-porthmeor-beach-st-ives-19281Ben, too, began to use more impasto paint against his spare backgrounds, thus anchoring and defining his boats so that they seem to move believably through the water – for instance in ‘1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives)’ (left).  He also includes Godrevy Island with its lighthouse in the top centre-right, which was a distinctive feature of Wallis’s compositions.

The final room is a hurried epilogue describing the separate paths that the artists took after these fruitful years of mutual exchange and inspiration.  ‘Le Phare’ (1929) and ‘Zebra and Parachute’ (1930) show Wood developing a surrealist approach, using increasingly odd juxtapositions, before his suicide in 1930.  ac7d48b038a250bb59f5ba3df1872e3b

Winifred, whose personal style was defined from early in her career, continued to produce her exquisite flower paintings.  But ‘Winter – Fishbourne’ (1931-2, right) and ‘Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece’ (1932) – if anything more accomplished and refined than ever – are a little pale and melancholy, for Ben had left her in the autumn of 1931 and moved in with Barbara Hepworth.

Interestingly, after moving to Paris in 1932 and befriending such avant-garde artists as Mondrian, Gabo and Helion, Winifred turned to abstraction, again inspiring Ben in his transition to abstract relief paintings – the first was made while staying with her on the Quai d’Auteuil.  It seems unfair that Winifred, who earlier in her career gained more acclaim, and supported and encouraged Ben until the point when his career took off, should be allowed to slide into the shade, eclipsed by the ‘St. Ives group’ that Ben and Barbara Hepworth became associated with.  It is a great relief that the Dulwich Picture Gallery gives both an equal voice.



Caro’s Last Sculptures

Caro’s last sculptures (a selection of them at least) bask under the sunlight that streams into the Annely Juda gallery.  The weighty steel looks comfortable there – sometimes elegantly crumpled, sometimes rigidly assertive, always skilfully composed.  And now there is added to this solidity the electric glow of vivid perspex panels: love it or hate it this innovative insertion revivifies the typically Caro-esque steel constructions.  This is what is so disconcerting – the energy and inventiveness proclaim an artist at the peak of his career, while the title, ‘The Last Sculptures’, asserts otherwise.  One expects an artist at the end of his life to produce a kind of ‘summing up’ of his oeuvre, to revisit his earlier career, or indeed to lurch in an entirely new and inadvisable direction as if regretting the roads not taken. Caro’s work seems as fresh aged 89 as it did when he first brought his abstract compositions onto the gallery floor in the early 1960s.


In my opinion, some work and some don’t.  The most successful are those which use colourless perspex – either clear or opaque – resulting in interesting effects that trick the eye and that work with the industrial materials in an aesthetic dialogue.  The brightly coloured pieces often seem facile intrusions into an otherwise dignified and well-balanced piece.  The shapes of the panels sometimes appear totally arbitrary, lacking the gravitas of steel with its intimations of past functionality.


‘Spin’ (above, 2013) juxtaposes rusted steel and opaque white perspex, creating a gratifying contrast of colour and texture with the simplest of forms. The perspex could be marble or candle wax; it is the purity in opposition to the corrupted steel – like an explosion of a derelict warehouse and a smart coffee shop.  Not far away ‘The Eye Knows’ (below, 2013), unlike the modest ‘Spin’, stands over two metres high.  It resembles an part of an industrial plant or a public urinal, deconstructed, the pipes leading nowhere;  through the middle slices a sheet of transparent perspex.  This really makes the piece, acting like a mirror but not reflecting quite the right forms, or leaving gaps where they shouldn’t be, playing tricks of perception with the eye.


Opposite, ‘Terminus’ just misses what these pieces achieve so well.  The red perspex sheet that runs through the centre of the construction recalls the horizontal red form of the iconic ‘Early One Morning’ (1962), yet here it is it just garish – as are the scarlet bespattered steel elements supporting it – and it also lacks any dynamism.  It is static, sluggish, pinned down by the railway sleeper above.


Upstairs there is a meditative arrangement of ship’s capstans and a bell-shaped perfume distiller salvaged from the South of France; the low bulbous shapes of the rusted steel and greenish copper in ‘Bollards’ (above, 2012-13) need something to lift them into life – but the brown-tinged perspex only manages to look like a cheap coffee table hiding amongst them.  Nearby, ‘Autumn Rhapsody’ (2011-12) gains momentum with its circular metallic sweep climbing upwards like Tatlin’s tower, then crumpled sheets of steel appear quite another substance altogether, denying the rigidity and functionality of the material.  Unfortunately the flat planes of perspex here, which might have worked as a counterpoint, are such an acidic neon yellow that it puts one’s teeth on edge and clashes in a particularly disagreeable way with the beige-khaki colour of the steel.


‘Card Game’ (above, 2011-12) combines all the most successful elements of this series (which may be why it gets a small room all to itself).  The tenderly crumpled steel against the rectilinear frame of the table structure; the rusted metal against the transparent perspex, which reflects and teases, complementing and enlivening its steel counterpart.  It is based on Cezanne’s ‘Card Players’ in the Courtauld Gallery, and you can certainly read into it the hunched figures sitting around a table – but it is almost more rewarding not to impose this narrative onto it, to simply appreciate the beauty of the assembled parts and admire the work of a master.


Close-Up on Kiribati


Giulietta Verdon-Roe’s photographs of everyday life on the islands of Kiribati initially appear idyllic.  Pictures like ‘Retrieving moimotos (green coconuts), Bairiki, Tarawa’ (above) epitomise a tropical island paradise to a jaded Londoner, while the crisp black and white snapshot style summons up both a certain nostalgia and a refined beauty.

But the raison d’être of the trip to Kiribati, and the fact that colours the whole portfolio with an urgent poignancy, is that the islands are threatened with imminent extinction from the rising sea levels.  Kiribati is a chain of 33 low-lying atolls in the South Pacific, though the majority of the population live on just a few islands known as South Tarawa. These islands were occupied by the Japanese during World War II and were the site of the Battle of Tarawa in 1943; formerly the Gilbert Islands, they gained independence from the UK in 1979.  Over the course of the exhibition, all these various aspects of Kiribati – its history, culture, industry, flora and fauna, and its now precarious future – are documented, building up a subtle yet complete portrait of a people.

karokoa- giulietta verdon-roe full

The first selection starts quietly, with still scenes of empty interiors and food being prepared.  A lone flip-flop signifies momentary human absence, while images of bagging and cooking of fish illustrates the limited diet of the islanders – predominantly fish, rice and coconuts.  Wall 2 continues this theme, with scenes of coconuts being collected and fishing boats being loaded.  Figures make an appearance here, both at work and play: there is an image of ship-breaking and a petrol station (below), a hospital maternity ward, the airport at Maiana (little more than a shack), the church and the bar.


Further along, one is admitted an insight into individual lives.  Joy is pictured gutting flying fish at 5.30am (below), sitting cross-legged with the first dappled rays of sun filtering through the leaves, just catching her absorbed features.  There is a scene of a bride preparing for her wedding, and another showing a celebration of a man’s recovery from a motorcycle accident; others show locals enjoying an evening swim or children playing in trees.


Wall 4 introduces to this chronicle of daily activities and entertainments the more serious issue of climate change.  Photographs document the Climate Change Conference held in Maiana, the delegates sitting cross-legged in the ‘maneaba’, the community’s meeting hall – so very far away from the scale and technology of EU conference centres that it seems difficult to believe there is any real understanding between the two.  Hopefully exhibitions such as this will help to remedy that concern.


The final sections of the show focus in on details again, becoming increasingly abstract.  Compositions of cards captured mid-game, piles of fruit, piles of rubbish; the sudden – incongruous – appearance of the a rusting World War II tank emerging from lush undergrowth.  The Climate Change Ambassador flies out of Maiana; and we are left with exquisite, elegiac images such as ‘Dried Coral Beach, before the tide returns, Maiana’ (above) whose textural and tonal qualities sum up the innate beauty of these islands.

Aboard The Swan at Greenwich


On Sunday we made our way to the Tall Ships Festival at Greenwich, where we had been invited for a tour of ‘The Swan’.  A small ferry-boat scooped us up off the pier and away from the crowds, across to a pontoon where four beautiful wooden ships were moored directly in front of the Old Royal Naval College – just far enough offshore to give a glorious perspective of Wren’s majestic design, itself framing Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House beyond.


Our host on board, John, gave us a tour below deck – not spacious by any means, it was beautifully constructed and very pragmatically designed – before giving us a short history of the ship.  The Swan was originally built in 1900 as a herring fishing vessel launched from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, working from May until August, putting out drift nets at sunset and coming back into shore at daybreak to land its catch for gutting and curing.  At this point the herring fishing industry was at its peak with around 1,700 ships at work around the British Isles, and the salted herring were transported in barrels to Germany, Poland and Russia.  However, it was not long before steam drifters began to replace the sail boats – there are now only around 28 ‘super-trawlers’ in total.  The Swan was retired in the 1950s, and only rediscovered in Hartlepool in 1989, half submerged.  Having returned to Shetland, the Swan Trust was set up to fund the restoration of the ship and she was eventually relaunched in Lerwick in 1996.


Today the Swan is used as a sail training vessel and takes part in the Tall Ships Races, as well as being a ‘living museum’ dedicated to this key period of Shetland’s history.  As we left, a barbecue was being set up on the pontoon, and two of the crew were busily preparing kebabs.  Our departure was dramatically delayed due to the swell created by the big Thames clippers which made mooring alongside impossible for the ferry boat; so we sat a while longer, gently bobbing on the water, and admiring the view of Greenwich in the sunlight.

Back on land we headed for the heaving indoor market where all the cuisines under the sun seemed to be on offer – an appropriate fusion of cultures that almost allowed a glimpse of the bustling port the ships must once have known.