Dr Lee Beard is currently preparing the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the Artist’s work and would like to hear from owners of any work by the Artist so that these can be included in this comprehensive catalogue. Please write to Dr Lee Beard, c/o Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art, London, W1A 2AA or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1932 Ben Nicholson moved into Barbara Hepworth’s studio in Hampstead, the beginning of a fruitful personal and artistic collaboration and a partnership that changed the course of the avant-garde in Britain. Together they travelled to Europe and forged lasting relationships with European Modernists, who became collaborators and friends, including Mondrian, Gabo, Hélion, Miró, Calder, Moholy-Nagy and Braque. Throughout the 1930s, they were founding members of pioneering avant-garde groups at home – Unit One, the Seven and Five Society – and abroad – Circle, Abstraction-Création. Barbara Hepworth’s absolute commitment to direct carving stimulated Nicholson to embark upon his first carved and painted reliefs in 1933, and the white reliefs he subsequently produced propelled him to international stardom.
Just before war broke out across Europe in 1939, Nicholson, Hepworth and their three triplets left London and the imminent threat of bombing for the relative safety of Carbis Bay, Cornwall, just a mile from St Ives. Brought to this particular area by the generosity of critic Adrian Stokes and his first wife artist Margaret Mellis, who hosted the family before they found their own home, for Nicholson it was something of a homecoming. Together with his first wife Winifred Nicholson and friend Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson had travelled to St Ives, discovering self-taught artist Alfred Wallis in 1928, a meeting that invigorated Nicholson, foregrounding the childlike, the naïve and the direct within his work.
The return to St Ives, rather than causing a sense of isolation for Nicholson, now removed from the buzz of the metropolis, instead precipitated a broadening of his art, a dissolving of strictures and a renewed sense of openness: ‘Though he still chose to see himself as the leading painter in the Constructive movement, the early 1940s saw Ben Nicholson turning away from his concentration on geometrical forms and abstraction to a broader range of production including representational painting. What touched him most deeply, on return to the St Ives area and seeing it again and again, was the light, more Mediterranean than English and all the more joyous for being less reliable than in Italy.’ (Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1993, p.177). The return to representation included one particular motif, previously seen in Winifred Nicholson’s painting in the 1920s, that of the still life in front of the landscape. Closely associated with this period of Nicholson’s output, the jugs, vases, mugs and glass vessels in the open window before the Cornish seascape became something of a bridging device, a path that led from abstraction back to the pure still life.
The genre of still-life was at the heart of Ben Nicholson’s practice, from his earliest work in the 1920s through to 1949 when he created Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 and beyond in the 1950s and 1960s. 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 George Braque played a significant role in his continual return to the genre. The interlocking shapes and planes, the balance between line and sections of colour in Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 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 exquisite Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 signalled the start of a group of still lifes from the late 1940s through to the mid-1950s of majestic and monumental still life works, occasioned by a new studio, which allowed for larger works, and the foundation of the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall in February 1949 by Nicholson, Hepworth, John Wells, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach and Guido Morris, later joined by Bryan Wynter and David Leach, with Herbert Read as President. Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 just pre-dates the new studio: the ambition and magnificence is all the more intense for the concentrated scale. In the present work we look down upon a table-top still life: the mise-en-scène entirely fills the board, a composition dense in complex formal arrangement and colour relations. Just the year before the present work, Nicholson explained the intra-relationships in his painting: ‘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).
Unusually for Nicholson’s still lifes of this period, Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49 is on board, rather than canvas: Nicholson had an extraordinary ability to make the wooden support a leading protagonist in the work. Exploiting the texture of the grain in Still Life (Speckled) March 18-49, the very process of making is written into the final result: the wooden support is infinitely susceptible to being worked with incisions and thin layers of oil paint, added, scrubbed back and reintroduced to create subtle modulations of texture and colour. These areas of rubbed, textured board are held in counterpoint by areas of more solid colour, particularly the red to the left, the strip of purple at the top, green to the right and light yellow and deep red at centre. Curvilinear lines reverberate across the still life, enlivening the composition as they cut across form and colour. Nicholson dances between colour and texture, between representation and abstraction, weaving layers of variation upon one another, creating, in final form, a modernist still life masterpiece.
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