Modern British & Irish Art

The Creative Marriage of British Artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson

By Rachel Collett
Sotheby's Made In Britain sale on 10 September features works by both Ben and Winifred Nicholson, two noted British artists whose marriage marked an artistically fruitful period.

W hen Ben and Winifred Nicholson married in November 1920, it marked the beginning of a tremendously experimental and collaborative artistic and romantic relationship.

Painting alongside each other in their home in Lugano, Switzerland, they became what Winifred described in her letters to E.J. Hooper as ‘utter paint friends’ (quoted in Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson, Lund Humphries, 2009, p.51), discussing ideas about abstract modernism and inspiring each other’s stylistic development towards the ‘primitivism’ of the French avant-garde. Inspired by the likes of Cezanne, Rousseau and Picasso on their travels in Paris, the Nicholsons pursued a non-referential art that created new idioms and explored the simplicity of colour and form.

"Our experiments were fast and furious and I found it an inspiration working with her."
Ben Nicholson quoted in Jovan Nicholson, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-1931

This experience, paired with travels in Ceylon, Sri Lanka and Burma in 1919-20, inspired Winifred’s fascination with light and colour, encapsulated in her early floral still-life compositions. Penstemons (Lot 80, Estimate £40,000–60,000) and Flowers in a Jam Jar are significant works from this time when Winifred was developing her impressionistic style with very little drawing or preparation, simply painting straight from palette to canvas, and even using her fingers as paintbrushes.

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Jam Jar, c.1928, Estimate £20,000–30,000

Perhaps because of her position as a woman artist practicing at a time when patriarchal conventions of male ‘genius’ limited women’s access to fame and recognition, Winifred’s work was somewhat overshadowed by that of her husband, and has been subsequently neglected by art historians.

"[Winifred Nicholson] has probably no equal among modern British Painters as a colourist of the most exquisite refinement."
P.G. Konody, (quoted in Jovan Nicholson, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-1931)

Today however, these paintings are largely regarded as her crucial breakthrough, which critics and buyers admired for their delicacy, freshness and immediacy when first exhibited at the Paterson Gallery in London in 1923. Commercial success followed with further exhibitions, including the 1927 exhibition at the Beaux Art Gallery in which Penstemons was included. One anonymous reviewer in The Times highlighted this work in particular as a display of Winifred’s ingenuity, being imbued with spiritual qualities that allowed the viewer to escape into a new reality, stemming in part from her transient subject matter. While she continued to experiment throughout her career, her compositions remained rooted in her fascination with the still-life genre and an exploration of the relationship between colour and light.

Ben was a huge supporter of his wife, and he described one of their joint shows as consisting of ‘Winifred’s very sensitive flowers on one wall and my fierce blunderbusts on the other.’ (quoted in Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson, Lund Humphries, 2009, p.23). Indeed, Ben Nicholson’s breakthrough came later in the 1930s as he moved further towards abstraction and modernity in his work, particularly in his deconstructed still-lifes.

May 1955 (green chisel) (Lot 84, Estimate £80,000–120,000), produced during this innovative period and in the same year as his first high-profile retrospective at the Tate London, is a typical example of such works; table-top objects such as goblet, carafe and jug are delineated in Ben’s trademark style that inverted traditional modes of still-life painting. Although painted in 1955, the work is reminiscent of the style he developed with Winifred in the 1920s; the interlocking forms and stylised lines alluding to the cubist influences they discovered together when experiencing the French avant-garde first-hand. The distinctive surface, created using a technique introduced to the couple by Christopher Wood, also clearly displays the sensitive understanding of colour Ben drew from this earlier period with Winifred.

Describing their time together in the 1920s, Ben recalled: ‘Our experiments were fast and furious and I found it an inspiration working with her.’ (quoted in Jovan Nicholson, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-1931, Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2013, p.25), indicating their tremendous importance to each other’s development.

Despite their divorce in 1938, Ben and Winifred found in each other a like-minded partner with whom to rebel against the artistic academicism and traditions within which they had grown up, maintaining this dialogue in lively letter correspondence throughout their long careers. Although their styles grew to be quite different, the simplicity and abandonment of artistic conventions in their respective artworks represents a joint commitment to a truly modern and experimental art that achieved a shared harmony, both through Winifred’s masterful sense of colour and Ben’s lively balance of form. Ultimately, her domestic flower paintings and his abstract still-lifes convey a comparably energetic attitude to painting that is unmatched in the history of British art.

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