Lot 214
  • 214

Ben Nicholson

350,000 - 500,000 GBP
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  • Ben Nicholson
  • 1971 (Obidos 2) (Portugal)
  • signed Nicholson, titled and dated 1971 on the reverse
  • oil on carved relief board
  • 162.2 by 147.2cm., 63¾ by 58in.


Estate of the Artist (sale: Sotheby's, London, 30th November 1988, lot 247)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner


London, Marlborough Fine Art; Zurich, Galerie Marlborough & Rome, Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, Ben Nicholson, New Reliefs, 1971-72, no. 32, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Cambridge, Kettle's Yard (& travelling), Ben Nicholson: Chasing out something alive, 2002, no. 43


Executed on carved relief board, the board is stable and presented in the artist's frame. There are two puncture marks made from the back of the supporting board in two places along the right edge. There is some residual glue along the extreme upper edge of the carved board consistent with the artist's process. Otherwise this work is in overall good condition. The perspex prevents UV examination.
"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

While Nicholson excelled in his still life works during the fifties, it was not until the sixties and early seventies that his relief carving flourished beyond the achievements of the iconic white reliefs which defined his artistic production during the 1930s. In 1958, Nicholson moved to Switzerland, where he built his own house and expansive studio with his new wife, the photographer Felicitas Volger, perched high above Lake Maggiore close to the Italian border. Nicholson was enchanted and impressed by the scale and magnificence of the landscape, and often spoke of the panoramic views of the grand Swiss mountains beyond the vast expanse of the lake, a thousand metres below the wall to wall windows in the sitting room of his new home. It was this landscape which inspired a palette dominated by the tonally subdued colours of the crisp and bright winter mornings he was particularly fond of, and which generated reliefs carved on an unprecedented monumental scale.

The present work is one of the last of these works made by Nicholson before he returned to England in April 1971, where his much reduced studio size and failing health and eyesight ultimately prevented him from working on such a large scale. For an artist now into his seventh decade, the production process of works of such proportions as 1971 (Obidus 2) (Portugal) was demanding, and often Nicholson would be required to crawl over them, a test of agility and a physical involvement with the power of the transformation of his idea into object which the artist relished. In Switzerland, Nicholson began to work using man-made hardboard, which was much less susceptible to warping and wearing than the natural woods he had used in the past. However, as a material it was much harder, requiring a lengthy and laborious carving process to achieve the planes and sharp lines which Nicholson demanded of his works. As a result, the larger works demonstrate a broader handling of form, colour and line. The application of paint became much freer, and as in the present work, Nicholson began to extend the expansive white gestures of his brushwork beyond the carved edges of the figures, while continuing the process of repeatedly applying and wearing back the paint surface to create a weathered effect inspired by the rock faces, which had first inspired him in St Ives and later in the Swiss mountains.

Nicholson’s compositions became more pared down and monumental during the period in Switzerland, and from the mid-sixties onwards he increasingly allowed curved lines to enter his reliefs. In the present work, the two curving lines - which stand in tension to the determined straightness of the framing rectangle and the constraints of the central square motif - introduce a tension to the object, a restlessness which is echoed in the loosened brush work which has an almost urgent quality to it.

Throughout the 1960s, Nicholson and Felicitas Volger travelled widely throughout Europe: to France, Italy, Greece, the Aegean, and Portugal, a trip which may have been the inspiration for the present work. While Nicholson continually made drawings of the landscapes through which he travelled, Volger took photographs which he was able to review on returning to his studio. However, although the title of the work points to a particular location, Nicholson was keen to emphasise that his works were less depictions of specific places, rather memory traces, capturing a sense of the experience of being in a place from which almost all reference to the location itself is excluded. He cherished Brancusi’s statement that ‘Simplicity is not an aim in art: one attains simplicity in spite of oneself by getting nearer to the sense of things’, and wrote to Margaret Gardiner in May 1967 of one of his abstract works inspired by Greece, ‘The abstract version by its free use of form and colour will be able to give you the actual quality of Greece itself, and this will become part of the light and space and light in the room – there is no need to concentrate, it becomes a part of living’ (quoted in Ben Nicholson. Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Aldershot, 2002). An artist who continually sought to capture the landscapes of Europe through which he loved to travel, in 1974 Nicholson was fittingly awarded the Rembrandt Prize in recognition of his contribution to the cultural heritage of Europe over a remarkable artistic career which stretched over seventy years.