Lot 20
  • 20

BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. | July 1960 (green and black)

120,000 - 180,000 GBP
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  • Ben Nicholson
  • July 1960 (green and black)
  • signed and titled on the reverse
  • oil on canvasboard laid down on the Artist's prepared board
  • image: 40 by 50.5cm.; 15¾ by 20in.; board: 54 by 61cm.; 21¼ by 24in.


Galleria Lorenzelli (Bruno Lorenzelli), Milan, where acquired by the previous owner in 1960
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 25th October 2000, lot 81, where acquired by the present owner


Milan, Galleria Lorenzelli, Ben Nicholson, 1960 (details untraced);
Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Pittura moderna straniera nelle collezioni private Italiane (details untraced).


The canvasboard is laid down on the Artist's prepared board. There is some slight rounding and wear at each of the corners, most notably in the lower left. There is one very slight nick at the lower edge. There are some incredibly fine lines of craquelure in the uppermost white shape with some tiny associated flecks of loss, only visible upon extremely close inspection. There is some rubbing to the paint surface, in keeping with the Artist's working methods. There are one or two very tiny lines of crauqelure to the paint surface, in the lower left quadrant. There is some very light surface dirt and studio matter in places. This excepting the work appears to be in overall very good condition. Inspection under ultra violet light reveals some areas of fluorescence however these are all in keeping with the Artist's technique, working methods and materials. The work is float mounted on the Artist's mount and held behind glass in a simple wooden frame. Please telephone the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any further questions regarding the present lot.
"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 kind of painting which 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, ‘Notes on “Abstract Art”, 1948, quoted in Peter Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries, Aldershot and Burlington, 2002, p.90).

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

The genre of still-life was at the heart of Ben Nicholson’s practice, from his earliest work in the 1920s through to the 1960s, when he produced July 1960 (green and black) and beyond. His father, the acclaimed painter Sir William Nicholson, was famously a master of the genre and Ben credited his father for the early interest: ‘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’ (Ben Nicholson quoted in The Sunday Times, 28th April 1963). Despite the generous attribution of his success to his father, Nicholson’s exposure to Cubism in Paris in the 1920s and the 1930s, and his friendship with Georges Braque played a significant role in his continual return to the genre. The interlocking shapes and stylised lines of the table top objects in July 1960 (green and black) 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. Though much of his work in the 1960s was focused on the landscape, his interest in still-lifes was unwavering and he worked on both themes in tandem. Nicholson’s third wife, the photographer Felicitas Volger, whom he married in 1957, took numerous photographs of Nicholson’s collection of vessels placed in perfect formation against a backdrop of the rugged Swiss landscape (see fig.1) or positioned in front of Nicholson’s own works.  

A table-top composition, July 1960 (green and black) perfectly exemplifies Nicholson’s project to take this most traditional of genres and make it distinctively his own and unabashedly avant-garde. July 1960 (green and black) is simultaneously sparse but detailed and rich in texture, rigidly formal whilst remaining decorative and sensuous. Nicholson’s multitude of artistic concerns are synthesised into a work of restraint and bravura. The colour Nicholson uses is translucent – as A.M. Hammacher wrote in 1966, ‘His colour is wraith-like, filmy and unsubstantial, like a glimpse of light on the threshold of a new-born world. No bright reds or bright yellows, no bright blues here. His colours are either on the verge of brightness or caught in the act of disappearing.’ (A.M. Hammacher, ‘The Recent Ben Nicholson’ in Ben Nicholson Recent Work, exh. cat. Galerie Gimpel & Hanover, 1966, unpaginated). Minute modulations of colour unfold across the composition, as white turns into cream, cream to grey, grey to brown, enlivened by the assured strokes that constitute the dense black contours outlining the table and objects, with the gloriously voluptuous curl of a handle that curves through the centre of the piece. Whilst at first glance the work seems austere, A.M. Hammacher summarised the lushness unfolding upon sustained attention to the composition: ‘In my imagination I see before me a violinist, the arm, the wrist, the fingers, all trained to perfection, producing the graceful lines of an invisible music.’ (A.M. Hammacher, ibid).


With muted colours, the texture of the surface of the work takes prominence and the very process of the making of July 1960 (green and black) is written into the final painting. The grain of the support is visible and integral to the overall effect with Nicholson rubbing thin layers of oil paint into the canvas and board and then scrapping away to create a work of immense tonal depth and tactile appeal.