Lot 66
  • 66

Ben Nicholson, O.M.

120,000 - 180,000 GBP
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  • Ben Nicholson, O.M.
  • March 55 (amethyst)
  • signed and inscribed with title on the reverse

  • oil and pencil on board
  • 120 by 60cm., 48 by 24in.


Gimpel Fils, London, whence acquired by the family of the present owner, June 1959


Kassel, Documenta 1, 1955, no.27;
India, British Council touring exhibition, 3rd International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, 1956, no.8;
London, Bernard Jacobson, Ben Nicholson, 1993, no.19;
London, Bernard Jacobson, Ben Nicholson - Major Works; 2000;
London, Helly Nahmad Gallery, Ben Nicholson, 2001, no.21, illustrated in the catalogue.


The board appears to be in very good sound condition. The original screw heads are visible evenly spaced around the outside of the board. There are occasional tiny chips and scuffs at the extreme edges which appear to be contemporary with the time of painting. Overall in beautiful original condition, the paint surface sound and stable throughout. Inspection under UV light does not reveal any later retouchings. Attractively presented 'floated' behind glass in a plain wood box frame. The frame has suffered some scuffing along the top edge but is otherwise in good sound condition. Ready for the wall.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The late 1940s and early 1950s marked a crucial new phase in Nicholson’s work, one which by the end of the 1950s would secure him a position as the leading British abstract painter on the international stage. Between 1946 and 1960, he was exhibited in forty British Council exhibitions around the world, and by 1956 his works had been acquired by twenty museum collections abroad, ten of which were in the crucial American market. International prizes came his way too, as did sales. Amongst British artists, only Henry Moore could rival the profile that Nicholson built during the 1950s.

Whilst his pre-war work had built a level of international recognition, mostly in Europe, the post-war situation was such that the British Council were working intensively to raise the profile of British art abroad, and as an established abstract artist, Nicholson was a clear choice for selection. Under the leadership of Lilian Somerville, the British Council Fine Arts Advisory Committee at that time numbered amongst its influential members Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, Philip Hendy, John Rothenstein and Philip James. Nicholson’s long-standing association with Herbert Read was to be of particular value, and as Read’s position as one of the most influential writers on twentieth century art grew, his capacity to raise awareness of those artists he felt worthy of note increased too. As Nicholson acknowledged in a letter to Patrick Heron, ‘What the contemporary art movement in England wld have done without him (& what Barbara Henry & I would have done in the 30s without his active support) I don’t know – the whole landscape wld have been changed too slowly’ (sic) (letter dated 30th December 1968).

However, the support of Read et al would have been of little value had Nicholson not been producing work of the highest quality, and the hiatus of the war years had seen him produce works that were pursuing a variety of paths. Having moved down to St.Ives in 1939 after the outbreak of war, living conditions for Nicholson, Hepworth and their triplets were often cramped, artist’s materials were in severe shortage and their connections with the international art world were limited. In the 1930s Nicholson had built up an important network of relationships within the European avant-garde, particularly in Paris, and yet the isolation of the war years saw a move in his work away from the pure abstraction he had been pursuing towards a more landscape-influenced style. However, after the end of the war, his abstraction grew once more, this time working within an abstracted still-life idiom. As his paintings began to become larger and more expansive the physical demands of working were beginning to cause difficulties for Nicholson as his studio was actually a spare bedroom, and precipitated by the commission to produce two large curved panel paintings for the New Zealand ship S.S.Rangitane, he applied to Philip Hendy at the Arts Council (who controlled the leases) for the tenancy of one of the purpose-built studios by Porthmeor Beach. Once ensconced in this new space in the summer of 1949, Nicholson immediately felt that he had been liberated and was able to not only work on a much larger scale but also to have a number of pieces in progress at any one time.

Nicholson’s still life work by the middle of the decade was marked by a harmonious combination of fluid drawing and a relatively muted palette that used washes of colour to add extremely subtle forms to the composition. As used in the present work, this might be seen to prefigure the return to a more monumental manner in his relief works later in the decade and into the 1960s.