Today, Ben Nicholson’s reputation rests above all on the extreme abstraction he developed in his bold, minimal paintings and reliefs of the 1930s. But throughout the previous decade, he worked on landscapes and still-life compositions alongside his wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson. The two shared many of the same aims, and their circle included artists as remarkable as Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray. A major exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, England, which also houses the important collection formed by their supporter Jim Ede, reveals just how fruitful the 1920s became for the Nicholsons and their friends.
Soon after Ben and Winifred met, they went on a summer holiday to Devon. There, sitting by the side of the road at Tippacott, they drew the moors. Their ambition can be seen in the first two exhibits at Kettle’s Yard – the show’s second venue, after Leeds Art Gallery – but their differences are clear as well. Ben’s pencil drawing is austere and linear, whereas Winifred’s watercolour relies on a more lyrical, painterly response to colour.
Mutual inspiration led to marriage, in November 1920. Although fascinated by the Parisian avant-garde, the couple travelled to Italy and studied Renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca. As their confidence grew, Winifred painted “Cyclamen and Primula”, a study of potted flowers transformed by sunlight. Placed by a window looking over a mountainous landscape, the flowers gleam with warmth and luminosity.
Of the two, Ben was the more restless and dissatisfied, destroying many of his pictures. His experimental urge is evident throughout the show: whether painting in Lugano, Switzerland, or Dymchurch, Kent, he pushes himself towards a greater freedom by emphasising paint as paint. So it seems inevitable that, back in London, he should produce a work called “1924 (First Abstract Painting, Chelsea)”. Representation has here disappeared completely, and Nicholson relies instead on the flatness of colour patches overlapping each other. With hindsight, the painting is prophetic of his rigorous development during the 1930s. But in the context of this show, it is an exception.
Ben kept on painting still lifes and landscapes for the rest of the 1920s. Moving between London, Sutton Veny in Wiltshire, and Bankshead farmhouse in Cumberland, he responded adventurously to broad landscapes and humble homeware alike. In “1925 (Jar and Goblet)”, both objects are reduced to their simplest forms, giving them a sense of mystery; Nicholson clearly found them as compelling as spectacular scenery.
Winifred’s passion lay more with flowers, with studying how their hues “change and glow and fade.” In an impressive painting called “Flower Table: Pots”, they appear to float on a table so pale that it almost dissolves in the light. Her enthusiasm for this subject was shared by the artist Christopher Wood, who met the Nicholsons in 1926 and visited them in Cumberland two years later. As well as painting and drawing landscapes outdoors with Ben, Wood wrote that “flowers give me more pleasure than anything else.”
He found even more stimulus in Cornwall, when he joined the Nicholsons at Feock in Cornwall and painted “the big sailing ships” which he described as “a great temptation to go off into some unknown”. Similarly inspirational was a meeting, during a day trip with Ben to St Ives, with the elderly marine painter Alfred Wallis, whose strong, untutored vision fascinated the young artists. Winifred included a Wallis painting of ships in her “Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece”.
At the Kettle’s Yard show, curated by Ben and Winifred’s grandson Jovan Nicholson, the felicitous hanging constantly makes us aware of the links between all these artists. The pots created by William Staite Murray – with whom Wood and the Nicholsons exhibited in the 1920s – look equally at home here, introducing a distilled, sensuous simplicity inspired by his conversion to Buddhism and love of Chinese Sung dynasty pots.
As the 1920s approach their end, the mood darkens. Wood was an unstable young man whose opium addiction drove him to take his own life in 1930. His gloomy “Herring Fisher’s Goodbye” (1928) is a fearful work, haunted by a sense of the danger confronting a group of fishermen as they set sail in foul weather. One of his last paintings, “Zebra and Parachute” (1930), pays homage to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, near Paris, in front of which a zebra stands; in the background a parachutist descends, his apparently lifeless figure anticipating Wood’s own death. After hearing of the suicide, Ben wrote: “I could have parted with almost anyone but him.”
By this time too, the Nicholsons’ marriage was under strain, as Ben began a relationship with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Yet his work continued to develop towards a more radical brand of modernism, and he made his first abstract relief while staying with Winifred in Paris.
The refined strength and purity of Ben’s “1935 (White Relief)” brings the show to an impressive end, with its uncompromising reliance on the dialogue between a carved circle and square. It hangs next to a surprisingly abstract painting by Winifred called “White and Black Ellipse, Outwards”. By 1937 she was ready to declare that “the freedom of abstract thought has come”: this well-judged exhibition discloses how much she, Ben and their friends relished the journey of exploration.
Until 11 May, then at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, June 4-September 21, kettlesyard.co.uk