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.



Cats in Ruffs & Other Idiosyncrasies: Modern British Art at the RCA

The autumn season of art fairs has begun – and in suitably September-ish rain – with the 20/21 British Art Fair.  My mission (after tracking down the source of complimentary wine) was to find the Burra painting – just the one, though used to publicise the whole event.  Why is Burra suddenly the star of the show?  Is it the very scarcity of his works on show, along with his recognisable and idiosyncratic style, that distinguishes him from all the other prestigious names represented at the fair?

BurraWell here it is, presented by Austin/Desmond Fine Art.  Entitled ‘The Garden’, it is dated 1927, a period when Burra was excitedly discovering the South of France, holidaying at Toulon with his art-school friends, and visiting the seedier parts of Marseille.  Burra, never in the best of health, would withdraw to his hotel room during the heat of the day and sit at a table painting in watercolour from the lower right hand corner outward across the page as his imagination dictated.  Jean Cocteau was at one point staying in the same hotel, and Burra’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer, who was beginning to earn a reputation as a society photographer in her own right, was commissioned by him; she recalls being unable to carry this out owing to the thick haze of opium that permeated his room.

The painted palm trees suggest a location on the French Riviera, while the androgynous central figure is dressed in some sort of effeminate adaptation of a sailor’s outfit.  Sailors as a social group held a fascination for Burra – much as they did for Stephen Tennant too, who spent most of his life attempting to write and illustrate a novel called ‘Lascar: A Story of the Maritime Boulevard’.  Yet though there is always (to a greater or lesser extent) androgyny, none sport the striking blue eyeshadow of the the sailor in ‘The Garden’.WorkImageFull-1643

And what of the dog (or is it a cat?) with the ruff around its neck?  Is this a nod to the commedia dell’arte, elements of which so frequently appear in Burra’s pictures?  It certainly adds to the sense that this is a scene without narrative, plucked from a vaudeville piece now lost and, lacking its comedic context, looking a bit silly.  In fact, could it be a satire on the decade’s obsession with dressing-up for pointless theatrical tableaux? Though Burra was far from critical; indeed he positively revels in the flamboyance.

WorkImageFull-1244Considering the title of the Burra, there were two interesting comparisons: John Nash’s ‘The View from the Rose Garden’ (left, 1928) and Julian Trevelyan’s ‘The Garden’ (above, 1946).  One is exotic, the other in its muted colours a clearly English landscape; in both, however, the garden itself dominates – it is the subject, in itself – while Burra treats his garden, trees like cardboard props, as a backcloth to the human comedy that undfolds in the foreground.  It shows what a wealth of difference such a simple title can encompass.

????The Nash brothers were particularly well represented this year.  Paul Nash’s lithograph ‘The Strange Coast (Dymchurch)’ (above, 1920) contrasted with his brother’s garden scene in its monotone precision.  Rather than an idyllic vision of timeless nature, the lithograph seems to recall the man-made coastal defences of the recent war, the repetitive wooden groynes and tiered rocks of the sea wall standing like ranked armies.

1003_NORTHCOTE NASHMessums was showing John Nash’s ‘The Woodpile’131143 (left), just as accomplish- ed as his brother’s quiet tree- dominated reveries – though without the foreboding that often dominates Paul’s seemingly innocuous landscapes, imbuing them with a mysterious symbolic meaning.  Meanwhile Lucy Johnson presented Paul Nash’s ‘Haystack at Oxenbridge Farm, Iden, near Rye’ (1923), a gentle vision in pencil and watercolour.

Bell_river_at_cagy_artworkThe Court Gallery had an interesting pair of works by Nevinson – though ‘pair’ is the wrong word because one would never imagine they were by the same artist.  One was a 1911/12 prepatory drawing for a fragmented, futurist-style composition with dominant typographic elements; the other a colourful painted nude in traditional figurative style.  It was a particularly stark example of an avant-garde artist whom the Great War turned backwards (neither, sadly, seem to be illustrated on the website).  Also at the Court Gallery was a lovely Vanessa Bell, ‘The River at Cagy, France’ (c.1950) – as close to a Monet as anything I have seen by an English artist, though painted almost a century after the arch-Impressionist’s first depictions of bridges over the Seine.

tn_253704At the London Art Fair earlier this year Ewan Mundy Fine Art showed some very fine Elizabeth Blackadder paintings; this time it was the turn of the Colourists – Cadell’s deserted white beaches of Iona and George Leslie Hunter’s ink drawing of ‘A Street in Provence’ (left, c.1927-9).  An exquisite Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour of catkins may have been my ‘most desirable object’ of the entire fair.

_sjc1706There was, as always, a tempting array of prints – easy to imagine on the walls of even the smallest flat, so almost affordable…  Hockney’s ‘Cushions’ (right, 1968), where the protagonists’ absence creates an atmosphere tense and palpable with expectation; or Henry Moore’s placid ‘Sheep in a Landscape’ (below, 1974) – both at the William Weston Gallery.  Or the charming Peter Blake etching accompanied by a poem about Monica, beautiful and poignant, at Simon Hilton, that I wish I could remember.

moore_-_sheep_in_a_landscapePiano Nobile showed some superlative Dieppe views by Sickert.  And a ‘Siamese Cat Asleep’ (1925) by Christopher Wood – close rival to Mackintosh in the hallowed halls of my imaginary collection.