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Modern & Post-War British Art

Ben Nicholson and his Still Life Inspirations

By Julia Fischel

T his June, Sotheby’s will be offering a group of Ben Nicholson still life works as part of the Modern & Post-War British Art sales on 18th & 19th June. The genre of still-life was at the heart of Ben Nicholson’s practice, from his earliest work in the 1920s through to 1949 when he created Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 (Lot 24, Estimate £400,000-600,000), which leads this group of still-lifes, and beyond in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1932 Ben Nicholson moved into Barbara Hepworth’s studio in Hampstead, the beginning of a fruitful personal and artistic collaboration, and a partnership that changed the course of the avant-garde in Britain. Together they travelled to Europe and forged lasting relationships with European Modernists, who became collaborators and friends, including Mondrian, Gabo, Hélion, Miró, Calder, Moholy-Nagy and Braque. Throughout the 1930s, they were founding members of pioneering avant-garde groups at home – Unit One, the Seven and Five Society – and abroad – Circle, Abstraction-Création.

Photograph of Ben Nicholson at 60 Parkhill Road, Hampstead
Photograph of Ben Nicholson at his studio 60 Parkhill Road, Hampstead, circa 1936. Photographer Unknown; Purchased by the Tate Archive from Ben Nicholson’s executors in 1987; Photography: © Tate, London 2019 Unknown, Photographer/Tate / Tate Images

Ben Nicholson’s father, the acclaimed painter Sir William Nicholson, was famously a master of the genre and Ben credited his father for his early interest: ‘Of course I owe a lot to my father – especially to his poetic idea and to his still life theme. That didn’t come from Cubism…but from my father’ (Ben Nicholson, quoted in The Sunday Times, 28th April 1963).

Despite the generous attribution of his success to his father, Nicholson’s exposure to Cubism in Paris in the 1920s and the 1930s, and his friendship with George Braque played a significant role in his continual return to the genre. The interlocking shapes and planes, and the balance between line and sections of colour in Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 clearly allude to Cubist influences and more specifically to Picasso and Braque’s Synthetic Cubism that they developed together in the first decade of the 20th century.

‘The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is both musical and architectural, where the architectural construction is used to express a “musical” relationship between form, tone and colour…’ (Ben Nicholson, ‘Notes on “Abstract Art”’, 1948, quoted in Peter Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries, Aldershot and Burlington, 2002, p.90).

Photograph of Ben Nicholson working on a still life (1929-1935). Front of photograph
Photograph of Ben Nicholson working on a still life (1929-1935). Front of photograph 1936; Photographer Unknown; Purchased by the Tate Archive from Ben Nicholson’s executors in 1987; Photography: © Tate, London 2019 Nicholson, Ben, OM/Tate / Tate Images

June’s Evening and Day sales of Modern & Post-War British Art showcase this quintessential motif within Ben Nicholson’s oeuvre, spanning paintings, collage and works on paper. Join us for Sunday at Sotheby’s on Sunday 16th June when we will be welcoming renowned academic Dr Lee Beard into the galleries at 2pm to discuss the Modern Still Life, followed by a book signing of Dr Beard’s new publication of Nicholson’s writings.

Contact us now to reserve your free place on modbrit@sothebys.com or 0207 293 6424.

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