Ben Nicholson's Love Affair with the Continent

Ben Nicholson's Love Affair with the Continent

Sotheby's Evening sale of Modern & Post-War British Art on 19 November features two striking works by Ben Nicholson.
Sotheby's Evening sale of Modern & Post-War British Art on 19 November features two striking works by Ben Nicholson.

B en and Winifred Nicholson were married in 1920 and immediately set off on their honeymoon touring Italian cities and lapping up the influence of Italian Primitives such as Piero della Francesca, beginning what was to remain a life long love affair with the continent.

They were lucky enough to settle on the slopes of Monte Bré overlooking Lake Lugano where Winifred’s father bought the Villa Capriccio. Nicholson later recalled how ‘each day was a miracle of sunlight, each evening a wonder of stars’.

Here they painted the villa interior white and Ben fashioned a studio from one of the small rooms. They spent each winter there until 1924, walking and painting, and Ben produced one of his earliest masterpieces – 1921-3 (Cortivallo, Lugano) now in the Tate Collection, London – which reveals the strong influence of cubism on his work of the period. This early experience of the Italian lakes stayed with him and following the Second World War, and the resultant restrictions for travel, he began an ongoing series of works referencing visits to Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria.

Although he was clearly inspired by the monumental Italian architecture and the surrounding landscape, it is significant in light of his avant-garde achievements that one of his favourite subjects remained the traditional genre subject of the still life. Feb 15 - 49 (Siena) focuses directly on the table top objects themselves; the goblet, glass and mug each delineated in Nicholson's trademark style and framed in the distance by the elegant silhouette of the Tuscan Hills.

"I have favourite places – Mycenae and Pisa, and Siena, for instance – and I feel that in a previous life I must have laid two or three of the stones in Siena Cathedral."
Ben Nicholson, 1963

Nicholson had been interested in still life from an early stage in his career and later recalled that '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'. Although painted in 1949, Feb 15 - 49 (Siena) is highly reminiscent of Nicholson's style that he developed in the 1920s when they had experienced the French avant-garde first hand; to-ing and fro-ing between the Villa Capriccio in Winter and London and Cumberland during the summer took them through Paris during the vital years of the Kahnweiler sales when they would have witnessed major cubist masterpieces first hand.

The interlocking shapes and stylised lines of the central still life in Feb 15 - 49 (Siena) 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 first owners of the present work were the magazine publisher Sir Edward and his wife Lady Hulton. Following in the footsteps of his father who had founded several Manchester newspapers and once owned the London Evening Standard, Sir Edward founded the Hulton Press in 1937. He published several weekly magazines including Farmer's Weekly, Eagle, Girl and the pocket-sized Lillput magazine though his most famous title was Picture Post, founded in 1938. Picture Post had pioneered photojournalism in Britain and was bought by millions during World War II.

Appearing in public for the first time in over a decade Feb 15 – 49 (Siena) showcases Nicholson’s unrivalled understand and interpretation of the still life genre, and will feature as a highlight of Sotheby’s 19th November Evening Sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.

Modern British & Irish Art

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