Modern British & Irish Art

Four Decades of Ben Nicholson

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

June’s sale of Modern & Post-War British Art celebrates four decades of one of the 20th Century’s most successful and sought-after artists, Ben Nicholson. Led by his magnificent and monumental 1966 (Ios), which is being offered for sale for the first time since it was purchased from his Marlborough Fine Art show in 1971, the sale showcases the great breadth and diversity of Nicholson’s oeuvre.

 BEN NICHOLSON, 1940 (GOUACHE), 1942. ESTIMATE £60,000–80,000.

The earliest work included in the sale, 1940 (gouache) was painted during a period of great upheaval for Nicholson, during which time he was adjusting to dramatically changed circumstances brought about the outbreak of war. In August 1939, as Britain stood on the brink of War, Adrian Stokes had invited Nicholson together with his then-wife Barbara Hepworth and their children to spend the summer with them in his Cornish home. The family later moved to the area, leaving London behind and settling in the seaside town of St Ives.

 BEN NICHOLSON, ST IVES, 1954. ESTIMATE £15,000–25,000.

St Ives was to provide a rich source of inspiration to Nicholson and Hepworth, who after their split remained in the town. In 1957 Nicholson met the young German photographer Felicitas Vogler and the following year they moved to Brissago in Switzerland overlooking Lake Maggiore. The marriage and move proved a catalyst for a renewed sense of purpose and productivity, resulting in a series of exciting new still life and landscape paintings. The still-life genre had been at the heart of Nicholson’s work since his early childhood, inspired by the paintings of his father, Sir William Nicholson, and his move to Switzerland allowed his to further explore his own unabashedly avant-garde style, as seen in July 1960 (green and black).

The landscape of Switzerland was to provide a rich source of inspiration to Nicholson, resulting in a series of ambitious large-scale reliefs including 1966 (Ios), many of which are now housed in important international public collections.

BEN NICHOLSON, 1966 (IOS), 1966. ESTIMATE £700,000–1,000,000.

Due to their scale Nicholson worked on the reliefs on the floor of his studio, later commenting ‘You can find out a lot about a relief if you crawl over it intelligently’. Creating reliefs like 1966 (Ios) was immensely physically demanding, not just due to their size but due to the very materials which he was manipulating. Carving into hardboard required significant exertion, but resulted in some of the most impressive and important works created during the artist’s lifetime.


June’s Evening and Day sales of Modern & Post-War British Art celebrate the great breadth of Nicholson’s working career, spanning paintings and works on paper, and with estimates ranging from £10,000. Join us for Sunday At Sotheby’s on Sunday 10th June when we will be welcoming renowned art critic and curator Richard Cork into the galleries at 4pm to discuss the pivotal role that Nicholson played in British and indeed European Modernism. Contact us now to reserve your free place on or 0207 293 6424.

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