T.E. Milligan Grundy
Books and Things belongs to a small group of Nicholson’s still life paintings dating from around 1919 onwards that mark a definite shift in the concerns that he addresses in this genre. Mostly of relatively small size, they are notable for an informality of composition and wider, more colourful palette than he had previously used, moving away from the closely toned images of his earlier work. Closer inspection reveals that this apparent infomality is in reality very carefully built up, with the choice of objects and textures balancing each other supremely well. In Books and Things, Nicholson selects and places the objects in such a way as to suggest that they might have just been found this way, and yet on closer inspection we see how they actually balance each other, creating a subtle movement throughout the image. The cream glaze of the bowl is paired with the supple cream leather of the gloves, the red of the topmost book with the table, the trailing duck-egg blue of the ribbon bookmark with the other gloves. The overall form of the black book at the base of the pile occupies a space almost, but not quite, that of the golden section, and its slightly off-centre positioning again adds movement and almost imperceptible imbalance to the composition. Even the shadows are brought into play, with the ellipse of the shadow cast by the bowl mirroring that formed by the necklace draped over the pile of books. Similarly Nicholson also uses the textures of the objects, rendered with supreme skill, to create harmonies and contrasts, the leather of the gloves complementing that of the bindings and the hard shine of the glaze of the bowl repeated in the necklace. As in other similar still life paintings of the period, such as Vase and Books on a Red Table (Private Collection, sold in these rooms, 21st July 2005, lot 9 for £153,600) Nicholson also introduces underlying diagonal emphases within the painting, further adding to the tension of the composition.
Although we are rarely given any real sense of actual ownership of these objects, everything appears to carry a suggestion of clear familiarity, and indeed many of these were studio props. The blue gloves appear in his 1919 painting The Silver Casket (Private Collection), and are similarly contrasted with black, red and cream, and as here are used to balance their softness against the neo-classical silver caddy of the title.
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