“Find out about Ben Nicholson. Why does he simplify still forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?”
Note: This blog post is an entirely Bridgeman-Education-Image-Free Zone!
Ben Nicholson was the son of the painters Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. He trained as an artist at the Slade School of Fine Art where he was a contemporary of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. Influenced by his father, his early works were mainly still lifes. He recalled ‘not only did my father paint innumerable still lives but for as long as I can remember my home was full of the most lovely spotted mugs and striped jugs and glass objects which he’d collected’.
The Striped Jug 1914
Ben Nicholson devoted himself seriously to painting only after his marriage in 1920 to Winifred Roberts. In the 1920s, he began to explore the innovations in still life made by Cubism, arranging its elements, such as a jug and glass, as flat shapes on the picture plane.
Until the early 1930s English ideas of the ‘modern’ in art were still largely formed by reference to pre-World War I international developments. Through visits to France in 1932 and 1933 Nicholson acquainted himself with the work of artists such as Hans Arp, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder. Mondrian in particular influenced Nicholson’s move to abstraction.
In the 1940s, having moved to Cornwall with his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, he modified his work. As Jeremy Lewison, formerly Director of Collections of Tate, commented, “In order to earn a living he [Nicholson] returned to painting landscapes in naïve style which his gallery, Alex Reid and Lefevre, considered easier to sell. The return to landscape was generally to be observed in English painting during the war as Britain reverted to a period of isolation.”
Lewison continued “Other paintings develop the theme of the still life set before a window which Nicholson, along with many other members of the Seven and Five Society, including Winifred Nicholson, had enjoyed during the late twenties […] In such compositions Nicholson was interested in being able to unite objects in the foreground with those in the background, allowing the eye to travel over large distances and periods of time at one glance.”
1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall)
1946 (window in Cornwall)
11 November 1947 (Mousehole)
This third painting was sold at Christies in 2008 for £320,000. The catalogue notes for the sale explained “In the present work, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea… Similar views are found in earlier paintings such as Still Life and Landscape (Towednack) 1943 and in 1946 (Towednack) (sold Sotheby’s, London, 28 June 1994, lot 43 ¨£177,500) where again Nicholson used the division of the distant fields to interact with his still life composition.”
The task asked “Why does [Nicholson] simplify still forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?” I feel that it is the result of the ‘journey’, as reality tv shows would say, undertaken by Nicholson through his art. He started with traditional still lifes, explored cubism with its planes, moved into pure abstraction before combining them all into these landscape/still life paintings.
As Ben Nicholson himself said in a letter to artist Patrick Heron in Feb 1954 ‘All the still lifes are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me‘.