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.



Folk Art comes to the Capital


The large open-plan gallery space at Tate Britain is painted in bright primary colours, and on entering one is faced with a selection of oversized objects representing various trades in the simplest form.  It initially feels rather like one has stepped into a child’s play area.  However, a few steps further on and the exceptional (if eccentric) craftsmanship becomes increasingly fascinating, offering glimpses into a past society that is rarely revealed in such a context.


And it is often highly entertaining.  There is a small advertisement for ‘Richards: Artists in Hair’ – produced from a woven mat of hair. There is John Vine’s ‘Three Fat Pigs’ (C19th, below) – similarly testament to an popular decorative trend which is now quite bemusing.  There are tavern signs (such as ‘The Laird O Dumbiedykes’, left) and modern parables, all bearing a short ditty beneath the imagery – such as the ‘City Foulers Mark’ of 1840 which depicts the local authorities, shotguns in hand, tracking down a man covertly ‘fouling’ behind a bush, with a few lines recording that, in brief, the smell led them toward their target!

IMG_2615Among all the anonymous artists – she who embroidered a nun’s veil with a silken map of the counties of England, or the sailor who produced woolwork pictures of each vessel, her title picked out in yarn  – a few names stand out.  The Kentish tailor George Smart’s personages created out of scraps of fabric became famous among visitors to Tunbridge Wells in early C19th and were reproduced to the extent that they became stylistically distinctive (for example, ‘Goosewoman’, c.1830-40, below).

IMG_2617Alfred Wallis is different; as the curators justly point out, he is the ‘great exception to the general neglect and marginalisation of self-taught and artisan art by the British cultural establishment’ (which they are doing their best to put right with a show at Tate).  Wallis was ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood at a time when ‘primitive’ or ‘naive’ art was being championed by European modernists – a serendipity of time and place; there must have been countless ex-fishermen through the ages and in every harbour creating images of boats who remain buried in obscurity.

‘A View of Groombridge Place, East Sussex’ (c.1754-60) is a wonderful example of IMG_2618portrait of an estate that attempts to be topographically descriptive rather than simply scenic.  The boundary fence and ornate gates are flattened so that one can see the pattern of the metalwork, but look as if they have blown over in a strong wind, while the proud owner of the property stands at the height of the church, were the perspective and scale to be believed.  Other oddments gathered together in a display case are a mixture of the practical and the puzzling: blackened leather Toby jugs in the form of buxom female figures, a wood-carved figure who cracks nuts between his jaws (the earliest exhibit, dating form 1595-1605), and the mysterious examples of ‘god in a bottle’ – carved religious symbols contained in glass and glowing eerily.

IMG_2619The following room is dedicated to ships figureheads and figures representing trades.  A vast effigy of an Indian man who once adorned the HMS Calcutta from 1831-1908 dominates in garish glory (above right), facing a jaunty highlander (left) who was once a regular sight in the doorways of tobacconists shops (Glasgow being a major centre for importing tobacco).

Mary Linwood is an anomaly, a fact acknowledged by her work being shown in a separate niche in the gallery trail.  She straddles the distinction between Folk Art and Fine Art – one of the few facts definitely asserted – with her rather gloomy, though impressively large-scale, needlework reproductions of famous paintings.

Then we are quickly re-immersed in colour in the final display of ‘abstract’ folk art.  It is well-arranged, for indeed these pieces – mostly quilts – eschew all recognisable symbolism.  And for the good reason that they are not trying to relate a narrative, commemorate a person, sell a product or describe a place.  But can we not appreciate them for the incredible feats of craftsmanship that they are rather than having to ‘re-contextualise’ them as some sort of forerunner to the arrogant frivolity of ‘abstract art’?  Their ‘form, colour and material’ – those fundamentals of modernist appreciation – are quite apparent, and perhaps even more so, in the knowledge of their real practical purpose.  The brief stories bring the work alive; not just arbitrary lines on fabric after all, the pattern of the ‘Clicker Quilt’ (1920-30) mirrors the leather templates used in shoe manufacturing.  The ‘Crimean Quilt’ (c.1853-6, below) tells an even more affective tale, the construction of its intricate kaleidoscope of coloured cloth was a form of therapy for injured soldiers of the Crimean war – a fact that does much to undermine the traditional concept of craft as ‘feminine’ (though this has been well proven by previous exhibits already).


In a final epilogue are photographs of some of these diverse objects being created or used in their traditional context: May Day parades and mummers, ship-breakers’ yards and women dousing petals for well-front adornments.  The show is refreshing in that it doesn’t preach or teach too much; ‘Folk Art’ is described loosely, the exhibits range widely and we as spectators are left to enjoy the dexterity and the whimsy and make up our own minds what the term might mean.  However the curators are tempted at times into treading on eggshells, almost castigating themselves as representatives of the British art ‘establishment’ for having ‘marginalised’ such popular art for so long (in the same way that politicians still feel obliged to apologise for the fact of slavery and colonialism).  This is unnecessary, for the objects in the exhibition speak not of repression and discrimination as they fear, but appear more immediately a joyful celebration of community, industry and imagination; it is a paean to British eccentricity through the ages, and one which is now in a more cynical and digitalised age largely lost.