Lot 370
  • 370

Ben Nicholson

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
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  • Ben Nicholson
  • 1967-8 (relief)
  • signed Ben Nicholson and dated 1967-8 on the reverse
  • oil on carved board
  • 54.2 by 64.9cm., 21 1/4 by 25 1/2 in.


Waddington Galleries, London
Mr & Mrs George Bloch
Waddington Galleries, London
Acquired from the above in June 2005


Hong Kong, Museum of Modern Art, Modern Art from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, 1987, no. 36, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Waddington Galleries, Ben Nicholson Reliefs, 1999, no. 5, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


The carved board is stable and there is no evidence of retouching under UV light. The work is very securely framed which prevented an inspection without the glass. This work appears to be in very good condition.
"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

In 1958 Ben Nicholson left St. Ives, the Cornish fishing town and artists’ colony which had been his home in Britain for over twenty years, for Switzerland. Accompanied by Felicitas Volger, who he had married the previous year, the move occasioned a renaissance of relief carving in his work. Volger, a photographer, shared Nicholson’s interest in detail, surface and texture, and during this period his attention returned to the techniques he had developed whilst working on his iconic white reliefs of the mid-thirties. He revisited this approach with the acuity and sensitivity of an artist now in his seventh decade, having found a place amongst the leading figures of European modernism and enjoying international critical and commercial success.

The balance of forms within Nicholson’s compositions had always been of paramount importance and 1967-8 (Relief) exemplifies Nicholson’s continued mastery of balance within the relief. It remains an object of great delicacy despite the physicality of the carving process itself, which involved Nicholson gouging and chiselling the surface of the board, before repeatedly painting then scraping and wearing back the surface. Here, the close range of Nicholson’s palette and the subtle modulation of tones across the interlocking planes create a misty surface from which the forms emerge, in contrast to their sharply defined edges demonstrating the artist’s fascination with the ability to shift from one level to another with abruptness, bypassing any gradual transition.

In Switzerland, Nicholson continued to exploit the tension between a lack of pictoral depth and the physical depth created by his carving, but also began experimenting with movement in his work as well as variations in the surface. As Jeremy Lewison observes, ‘in contrast to the earlier reliefs where movement, which was recessive, was created by carving or by colour juxtapositions, in the late reliefs movement is often lateral and recessive as forms collide or lock into each other, the planes being curved or set at angles rather than parallel to the frame’ (Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, London, 1991, p. 23). In 1967-8 (Relief), the parallelogram interacts with the angles of the frame which surround it and the square it encloses, stretching out on the upwards diagonal, a movement balanced by the circle which seems to drift off centre moving in the opposite direction.

Throughout the war, drawing had become one of Nicholson’s principal activities, and in the present work, the circle on the central plane is so finely incised it appears at first to be simply a pencil line, evoking a geometric precision which is almost architectural. This captures the essence of relief for Nicholson, for whom painting was less of a matter of depiction, more the creation of an object itself. The different planes of the surface make up what appears to us as an image, but the stress is on the physical nature of the material which supports the paint. Despite this, in 1967-8 (Relief) the paler tones of the top half cast the faintest suggestion of a horizon, an element of the landscape painting which had occupied the artist in the fifties. Nicholson by the sixties had become a master of transforming his paintings into objects where balance and vitality, the abstract and the suggestion of the figurative, are held beautifully together: as he wrote in 1967, ‘It’s a dead material but one becomes so keen on one’s ideas that the dead material quickly becomes alive’ (letter to Adrian Stokes, in Ben Nicholson (exhibition catalogue), Tate, London, 1993, pp. 92-93).