In 1938, Winifred Nicholson accompanied Mondrian from Paris on the train journey into exile in London. Throughout, Mondrian stared resolutely out of the window, murmuring “Look how they pass, they pass, they pass, cutting the horizon here, and here, and here.” He was transfixed by the geometry of the telegraph poles. Daubing patches of colour on the walls, he settled cheerfully into a whitewashed Hampstead studio close both to those of Ben Nicholson and a lesser-known British artist who was just as committed to non-representational painting: the shy, modest northerner John Cecil Stephenson.
The Courtauld’s tightly focused exhibition juxtaposes Mondrian’s light, airy “Composition with Double Line and Yellow” (bought by Winifred, and the first Mondrian to enter Britain) and the vibrant “Composition No III White-Yellow” with Nicholson’s elegant white reliefs and several of his Mondrian-indebted canvases, restricted to rectangular forms and primary colours. In doing so, it explores how the Dutch artist gave the British one a new assurance to push towards abstraction.
This is a known story, expertly told. Stephenson, on the other hand, was always obscure – he had his first solo show aged 71, in 1960 – and Durham sets out to establish his place in the mid-century British avant-garde.
His formative influences were music – a gifted pianist, he broke horizontal and vertical lines into one another in ways recalling harmony and counterpoint – and working in a munitions factory, shown in the hard, mechanised forms of “The Lathe” and “The Mechanism”. Soon his depictions of wood and metal shavings turned into looping, curving abstractions, such as “The Scroll”. These developed in turn into the balance of trapezium shapes, vertical forms and wire-thin lines, painted in quick-drying egg tempera, in late 1930s pieces such as “Uprights”, “Rust, Indigo, Blue, Buff” and the harmony in pink and violet “Bright Triangles” – his best work, triply influenced by his new neighbours Mondrian and Bauhaus émigré Moholy-Nagy, and also Kandinsky.
‘Mondrian Nicholson’ to May 20, www.courtauld.ac.uk
John Cecil Stephenson to April 29, www.durham.gov.uk