Ben Nicholson’s art has always appealed to me (Ben Nicholson OM, 1894-1982). When I was studying at Edinburgh the National Gallery had a simple white relief (1935 (white relief)) that I coveted dearly (I also coveted its purity of thought), and the Modern Gallery of Scotland a later semi-figurative oil painting (June 1961 (green goblet and blue square) which I thought was the most beautiful thing in either gallery (and still do; I see both are currently in storage, which is sad). I am no art historian (at Edinburgh I got the lowest mark of any exam I have ever sat after a year of art history) but I thought I would try to put down what it is about his work that appeals to me.
At heart, I think it is an elegant economy; the economy of understatement (rather than meanness), which seems a peculiarly English characteristic: we don’t like a show-off. His father was the English society portrait, landscape and still life painter Sir William Nicholson, and though with him he might seem to share only an interest in still life and landscape, perhaps this Englishness is the real bond.
Ben lived in a studio in Hampstead which was left for St Ives in Cornwall at the start of the Second World War in 1939. He moved to Switzerland in 1958 with his third wife, photographer Felicitas Vogler, living in a simple white house overlooking Lake Lugano that he mostly designed himself. Probably the clarity of the Alps appealed to him. And perhaps the light by the lake recalled the light in St Ives. He returned to England in 1971, and was living back in Hampstead when he died in 1982.
As part of the group of artists and architects who brought Modernism to England from mainland Europe, Ben quickly moved away from his father’s influence, developing a unique and recognisable artistic language of his own. There is a childish naivety in all his work. This is not a criticism: I think most of us could benefit from staying closer to the free-thinking, questioning, mind of our childhood selves, that we lose over years learning mostly useless information to pass exams with.
I think I am right in saying that his white reliefs were a first: they followed a visit to Mondrian in Paris in 1933 and an accident scraping back a board. These and his coloured abstract compositions have a simple, perfect, beauty. Less contained than Mondrian’s work, Nicholson’s proportioning is by eye (he always drew the circles that recur on his work by hand, and the closer you look at a work as apparently simple and controlled as the Edinburgh white relief, the freer it is). Perhaps it is this instinctive balance that makes them so restful.
Landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe commissioned a giant white marble relief (1982) for Stanley J. Seeger at Sutton Place in Surrey, but it lacks this sense of freedom: presumably it was not so easy to play with proportions in a giant marble slab. Something is lost in the scaling up, suggesting that even the seemingly abstract whiteness of the reliefs have a human scale, that we experience them in relation to our own bodies.
The later predominantly brown-toned reliefs of the 1970s are less appealing, to me at least – I’m not at peace with the brownness of the ‘70s.
His still lifes, with the influence of cubism from Paris, have the intriguing quality of a double-exposed photographic negative. Objects are overlaid into a single composition, with just enough to say jug or mug from an outline to tell you that these are representational rather than abstract works. They don’t seek to find the one memorable image or view but accept, embrace, a more nuanced personal reading that places perception as a creative, personal act, not as fact. His perspective does not follow the rules by which we learnt it. He is not saying that his viewpoint is the right one, simply that it is his.
Buildings in his landscapes, painted during his time in Cornwall, have the simplicity of the archetypical child’s house: gable, door, square windows. Compared to Thomas Gainsborough’s depiction of every leaf on a tree in the 18th century, Nicholson’s spare line trees more readily express tree for him, and so for us too. His landscapes, seemingly so simple, nonetheless convey how it feels to be in them, which for me is the point of painting, to paint a feeling.
His later paintings, like the reliefs, were painted onto board, giving them, without the give of canvas, a flatness which seems to reinforce the lack of attempt to recreate reality: they are pictures, not illusions of the real thing.
The painted surface is often sanded back, which seems to reflect and record the work as a questioning, an attitude that does not consider the artistic gesture as immutable, but as the record of a thought or an idea. There seems to me to be an English gentleness to this, which I respond to innately.
His colour palette is muted, soft; early spring rather than high summer, which again seems to reflect an acceptance of the reality of the English climate rather than a pretence that perfect summer days are the norm.
The series of etchings from 1965-7, when he was in Switzerland, have the confidence of being their own thing, expressing a delight in making lines, not unlike his playful handwriting (in his letters sentences head off up the page following trains of thought). His etching of Siena’s Duomo conveys its strong presence, with its bands of black and white marble, without laboriously covering the plate with stripes.
Looking through my Nicholson books and catalogues to select the images to accompany this Record, it felt noteworthy that there are no big, great, works in his oeuvre, as often puntcuate successful artists’ careers. Some works are larger than others, but otherwise all seem to have equal worth to him. The titles are reticent, factual: the date and a place or descriptor; no poetry or allusive reference. But despite this inference that the works are recordings of time and place, in fact all his art hovers equivocally between representation and abstraction, and even when representational is at the abstract end of that spectrum.
Perhaps it is this undefined, enigmatic quality that means I don’t think you would ever tire of a Nicholson on your wall.
Ben Nicholson’s work often comes to mind when responding to a site for the first time, and in the studio we find ourselves referencing his work when presenting first ideas for projects. This is perhaps various things:
Nicholson, as one of the first to see modernism in Paris, brought it back and made it his own with his subtle and sensitive artist’s eye. The modern European spirit was filtered through an English sensibility, to fit in not fight with what has gone before, creating a subtle Englishness to his work.
I think had English architectural modernism sought and managed to hold on and instil a gentler, more questioning spirit, had thought of itself as a continuum with the past rather than a break with it, it wouldn’t have reached the dead-end it did. There are political parallels in our rejection of modernism and the European model, rather than an attempt to form our own nuanced version of it. We should have listened more.
It is perhaps interesting to compare my reaction to his work versus his contemporaries Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (both sculptor’s first, and Hepworth Nicholson’s wife for 21 years). Moore perhaps belongs to the spirit of international modernism: in the 1960s and 70s no global HQ building was complete without a Henry Moore outside (they could be ordered by size, priced to suit). Hepworth’s work perhaps aligns with brutalism, of a gentle kind, with more faith in the artistic gesture. Compared to them, Nicholson is gentler, quieter, more nuanced.
Nicholson’s subject matter reveals, directly and indirectly, an interest in buildings, and of course Nicholson’s reliefs are highly architectural. But then all of his work is (at least to an architect). His paintings, whether abstract or landscape, etchings and still lifes often resemble loose architectural plans, with the layering, concealing and revealing in his work suggesting the possibility of a more subtle reading of architectural space, or of space itself.
Though introvert plus introvert can equal awkward silence rather than enlightening conversation, I think I would have liked Ben Nicholson.
1931 (white relief) oil on carved board 54 x 64cm
1935 (white relief) oil on carved mahogany 99 x 165cm
1937, June (painting) oil on canvas 159 x 201cm
1947, November 11 (Mousehole) oil and pencil canvas 46 x 58cm
1957, May (Siena campanile) pencil, pen and wash on paper 53 x 42cm
June 1961 (green goblet and blue square) oil and pencil on board 78 x 78cm
Nov 62 (Botsika) oil and pencil on carved board 49 x 42 m
May 1955 (green chisel) oil and pencil on canvas 61 x 61cm
Patmos Monastery 1967 etching
the marble relief at Sutton Place, Surrey 1982 white marble 488 x 976cm
Felicitas Vogler Casa della Rocca, view of terrace and living rooms from top floor 1986
Felicitas Vogler Ben Nicholson in his studio at Casa della Rocca 1964