In the 1920s, Winifred Nicholson was one of the leading figures at the forefront of the Modernist movement in the United Kingdom however, she has since been neglected to a certain extent and side-lined, often seen rather as the first wife of Ben Nicholson than as a leading figure in her own right.  The recent touring exhibition Art and Life organised by Winifred’s grandson, Jovan Nicholson has led to a reassessment of Winifred’s work. The exhibition, which toured from Leeds to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, and on to Dulwich Picture Gallery, placed work from the 1920s by Winifred Nicholson alongside fellow artists Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood. The show was an immediate success, and the choice of a work by Winifred Nicholson as the lead poster for the show gave Winifred great exposure, with leading critics of the exhibition re-evaluating her importance, as is evident from the reviews.


Certainly in the 1920s and 1930s, Winifred’s originality was recognised by collectors, and often her paintings sold better than Ben’s. Following this show, which closed in September 2014, Sotheby’s is delighted to be offering a group of rare works from a distinguished private collection, which were collected over several years, by friends’ of Winifred. The paintings Sotheby’s has on offer certainly justify her place alongside Ben at the forefront of the Modern British movement producing some of the most memorable and original works of the period.

Colours wish to fly, to merge, to change each other by their juxtapositions, to radiate, to shine, to withdraw deep within themselves. For a long time they have been nailed down like carpets.

Winifred Nicholson

These works display Winifred’s striking originality and her awareness of the recent Parisian developments. In Paris, Winifred encountered major continental modernists, significantly those involved with Association Abstraction-Création, including Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Helion. She collected their works, corresponded with them and was at the heart of the ongoing developments in the Parisian art world, and became an important player in the development of modernism both at home and abroad. In 1927, the Observer critic P.C. Konody wrote, "She probably has no equal among modern British painters as a colourist of the most equisite refinement." Winifred became a principal member of the leading Modernist exhibiting group in Britain, the 7&5 Society, and wrote for Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art. Her contemporaries, including Hitchens, Nash and Wood, visited Ben and her at Bankshead providing mutual inspiration, and Winifred would continue this legacy of inviting artists to her Cumbrian farmstead and would support Li Yuan-Chia in developing first a gallery and then an arts centre for the community in the late 1970s.


The exposure to such a broad range of new ideas meant that Winifred developed significantly as an artist, particularly in her experimentation into the nature of light and complex properties of colour. The strength of the works in Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art sale on 9th and 10th June are testament to Winifred’s growing understanding and mastery of colour, as she investigated and pushed the boundaries in her experimentation into the independence of colour from form. Although the influence of current trends is evident in these works, her artistic vision remained characteristically her own.