Lot 19
  • 19

Ben Nicholson, O.M.

300,000 - 500,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Ben Nicholson, O.M.
  • Aug 24 - 52 (Palimpsest)
  • signed, titled and inscribed on the reverse
  • oil and pencil and collage on panel
  • 107 by 51.5cm.; 42 by 21┬╝in.


M. Nagata, Tokyo, by 1956
Sale, Christie's London, 14th December 1973, lot 286
Crane Kalman Gallery, London
Sale, Sotheby's New York, 21st May 1975, lot 161
Arne Naess Jr.
Private Collection


Tokyo, The Metropolitan Art Gallery, Second International Art Exhibition, 20th May - 8th June 1953, cat. no.25;
London, Crane Kalman Gallery, A Tribute to Ben Nicholson, 3rd July - 10th August 1974, cat. no.18;
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Gallery, Ben Nicholson: Fifty Years of His Art, 20th October - 26th November 1978, cat. no.54, with tour to Hirshhorn Museum, Washington and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn;
London, Tate, Ben Nicholson, 13th October 1993 - 9th January 1994, cat. no.98;
St Etienne, Musée d'Art Moderne, Ben Nicholson, 17th February - 2nd May 1994, cat. no.98;
Brooklyn Museum, 1999 (details untraced).


Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Vol.II, Lund Humphries, London, 1956, cat. no.56, illustrated.


The following condition report has been prepared by Hamish Dewar, 13 & 14 Mason's Yard, Duke St, St James's, London, SW1Y 2BU. UNCONDITIONAL AND WITHOUT PREJUDICE Structural Condition The artist's panel is providing a relatively even and stable structural support. The two horizontal batons are securely attached to the reverse main panel. There are several inscriptions on the reverse of the panel and a number of old exhibition labels are also adhered to the reverse. There are intermittent holes along the edges of the panel which possibly relate to a previous framing arrangement. There are also intermittent losses on the edges of the reverse of the support which most likely relate to previous framing fixtures and fittings. There are a number of very fine vertical splits to the support running in from the left part of the lower edge and a further fine split running down from the left part of the upper edge. These appear relatively stable. Paint Surface The paint surface has the artist's original surface appearance. There are a number of losses to the painted paper border including two at the centre of the upper edge, one at the centre of the lower edge, and one in the upper right corner. There are also two areas of lifting within the paper in the centre of the composition and a minor area of instability within the white pigments to the left of this. There are a number of very minor losses corresponding to the thin vertical splits in the upper left and lower left corners of the composition. There are also a few tiny paint losses corresponding to a knot in the wooden support in the upper right quadrant of the composition, and a further possible paint loss corresponding to a knot situated above the centre of the lower horizontal framing edge. This might also relate to the artist's working method. Inspection under-violet shows two very small retouchings within the white pigments to the right of the black form in the centre right of the composition and a small retouching corresponding to the knot in the upper right quadrant of the composition. Inspection under ultra-violet light also shows scattered areas of fluorescence which are attributable to the artist's materials and techniques. Summary The painting would therefore appear to in good condition and would benefit from the localised consolidation of any areas of fragile paint and paper. Unframed. Please contact the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"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

We are grateful to Lee Beard for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.

‘The kind of painting I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is both musical and architectural, where the architectural construction is used to express a “musical” relationship between form, tone [and] colour…’
(Ben Nicholson, 1948, quoted in Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, p.251)

Aug 24-52 (palimpsest) was painted during a highly important period in Nicholson's career. The austerity of the war years was beginning to subside and Britain was once again open for business, celebrating her survival with The Festival of Britain in 1951. Nicholson created an ambitious mural for a curved wall outside one of the festival restaurants on the South Bank which was resolutely abstract in style with an architectonic network of lines pulsating across a 5 metre expanse (see fig.1). The impact was immediate and led to another major commission for a mural for the Time and Life Building in Bond Street, London, executed in 1952, the year of the present work. There was no doubt that during the early 1950s, Nicholson was seen as one of Britain's pre-eminent artists and only a few years later, this was cemented on a global stage when he was selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1954.

Whilst both his Festival of Britain and Time & Life murals are essentially completely abstract, Aug 24-52 (palimpsest) is more typical of the dynamic fusion of figuration and abstraction that crowned Nicholson's international reputation during the 1950s. His choice of the word palimpsest is highly appropriate and on the one hand conjures a poetic sense of the artist peeling back each layer of paint to reveal influences drawn from throughout history and on a more literal level, perfectly describes his process of scrubbing away at the paint surface to expose the interlocking forms built up throughout the composition, the subtle outlines of a table top still life emerging from the depths of the painting.

Nicholson had been interested in the still life from an early stage in his career and later recalled that 'of course I owe a lot to my father especially to his poetic idea and to his still life theme. That didn't come from Cubism...but from my father' (Nicholson quoted in The Sunday Times, 28 April 1963). Sir William Nicholson's exemplary handling of objects in works such as The Lustre Bowl (1911, National Gallery of Scotland)must have been a clear influence, however, the still life genre was a firm favourite of his first wife Winifred's. Although it was painted in 1952, the present work is highly reminiscent of Nicholson's style that he developed in the 1920s when he had first married Winifred and when they travelled together in Europe and experienced the French avant-garde at first hand. The interlocking shapes and stylised lines clearly allude to cubist influences and more specifically to Picasso and Braque's Synthetic Cubism that they developed together in the first decade of the 20th Century.

The distinctive surface of Aug 24-52 (palimpsest) is also important. The underlying ground and the wooden board itself is clearly visible beneath the multi-layered paint surface and as such, draws attention to the physical nature of the board itself. Winifred later explained that it was Christopher Wood who introduced her and Ben to this technique of 'painting on coverine...it dries fast, you can put it over old pics' (W. Nicholson, Kit, unpublished memoir, Tate Gallery Archive 723.100, p.25). It created a firm painting ground which was visible beneath the painted image. In the present work, Nicholson has quite literally worked the surface, scouring the paint to create a highly textured finish that takes on a dynamic three dimensional quality as varying layers of paint are stripped back to reveal the board itself and enlivened through the bold curvilinear forms reverberating across the composition.