Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
Ben Nicholson was one of the most influential and radical British artists of the twentieth century. Celebrated for his ability to synthesize and abstract from nature, its bare essentials and re-form them in compositions of extreme elegance and clarity. For the most part Ben Nicholson's paintings and reliefs are geometrically organized, playing formal and austere lines against blocks of subdued colour, achieving a balance between line and suggested volume. Nicholson achieves this not only in his paintings, but as one of the greatest draughtsman of the twentieth century, in his prints as well. Ben Nicholson's ability to translate his mastery of line to carved and etched media is second to none. Always retaining his interest in landscape, whether it be the clear, bright light of Cornwall or the sun baked structures of ancient worlds visited throughout Europe, they were probably instrumental in developing his sense of light, almost transparent colour, through which objects are filtered rather than merely described.
Born in Buckinghamshire, into an affluent artistic family, Ben Nicholson always knew he would be a painter. Following a short spell at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910-11 Nicholson travelled extensively throughout Europe and then onto the USA where he received treatment for his asthma which exempted him from serving in the Great War.
In 1920 Ben Nicholson met and married the painter Winifred Roberts. Painting together, they divided their time between Switzerland and London. Taking in the Parisian art scene at this time Ben Nicholson's early works were clearly influenced by Cezanne and the cubists, as shown in his first solo exhibition held at the Adelphi Gallery in London in 1924. This same year Ben Nicholson was elected a member of the Seven and Five Society of artists. Other modernist artists followed, including the sculpture Barbara Hepworth, who later in 1938 became his second wife.
During this period Ben Nicholson continued to develop the move towards abstraction and his interest in surface texture, while at the same time still working with representational subjects such as still lifes. In 1925 Nicholson exhibited his works alongside Brancusi, Miro, Mondrian, Nash and Picasso in a group exhibition in Paris.
In 1926 Ben Nicholson met the painter Christopher Wood and exhibited alongside him and Winifred at the Mayor Gallery in London. By 1927 Ben Nicholson was beginning to develop a more primitive landscape style and more naïve approach to still life.
In 1928 Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, along with Winifred travelled down to Cornwall and stumbled across the local fisherman Alfred Wallis painting at his table in his humble dwellings in St Ives. This chance meeting was to become a seminal moment in the world of British art. Wallis's untrained, naïve style of painting appealed directly to Nicholson's desire for "truthful and fresh way of conveying reality". Wallis's depictions of his surrounding St Ives and imagery of memories as a fisherman were painted directly onto discarded cardboard or pieces of wood using ship or household paints. Ben Nicholson was the purchaser of the first ever Alfred Wallis painting to go up for sale. However, despite the influence and attention Wallis's paintings had over Nicholson, Wood and many other artists who came to tread the artistic boards of St Ives, Alfred Wallis was to die some 12 years later alone and penniless in a Penzance Workhouse.
By 1932 Ben Nicholson had started a relationship with Barbara Hepworth and sharing a studio together in Hampstead, Nicholson began experimenting with linocuts. This dramatic shift in Ben Nicholson's style corresponded with the development of their relationship. As depicted in the woodcut print 'Five Circles' edition of 30, signed bottom left in pencil Ben Nicholson 1934. Ben Nicholson revisits this same image some thirty years producing an edition of 300 signed prints, signed bottom left in pencil BN 34.
Ben Nicholson and Hepworth spent 1933 travelling and meeting inspirational artists such as Braque, Brancusi and Picasso. And along with friends Mondrian and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy they were invited to join the Paris-based group Abstraction-Creation.
Living and working in Hampstead with Barbara and other important artistic souls of those halcyon days, 1934 saw Ben Nicholson execute his first white relief painting. Nicholson went on to produce seven more and they were exhibited in 'These Ahthithese Synthese' at the Kunstmuseum in Basel.
In 1936 Ben Nicholson turned his hand to sculpture, creating 'White Relief Sculpture - version 1' and 'Sculpture'. Nicholson's works were included in 'Cubism and Abstract Art' exhibition at MoMA in New York and alongside Mondrian in the exhibition 'Abstract and Concrete' which toured throughout Britain.
With his great friend and mentor Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson co-edited 'Circle'. Other 'locals' involved in the publication were architect Leslie Martin, the sculpture Barbara Hepworth and architect and designer Sadie Martin. 1938 saw Ben Nicholson's first screen print published 'George and Rufus'.
By the end of 1938 Ben Nicholson's divorce was through and he married Barbara Hepworth. With the imminent on set of war Nicholson decided to move with his wife and newly arrived triplets down to Cornwall. The tight knit artisans of Hampstead started to disintegrate with Naum Gabo following to Cornwall and Mondrian escaping to New York.
Like many painters before and after him Ben Nicholson was drawn to this toe cap of England, this Cornish coastline with its ever changing moods of earth and sea and sky. By the beginning of 1940 Nicholson and Hepworth had settled into a rented house overlooking Carbis Bay.
Ben Nicholson's works were exhibited throughout Britain during this time, with the Tate Gallery acquiring there first 'Ben Nicholson' called 'Guitar'. It was a piece somewhere between a painting and sculpture with obvious influences from Alfred Wallis with its irregular shaped cardboard cutouts determining its composition and shape.
In 1943 Ben Nicholson joined the St Ives Society of Artists. Along with the sculptor Naum Gabo, Nicholson taught and inspired other young artist, they included; Peter Lanyon, Adrian Stokes, John Wells, Margaret Mellis and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.
As the war progressed Ben Nicholson developed a new form of painted relief, signalling perhaps a 'moderated idealism' acknowledging the 'need for art to be more accessible and tolerant' in light of the war. Nicholson's "more saleable works" - less abstract - were snapped up by the Tate Gallery: '1943-5 St Ives Cornwall' and '1945 Still life' in which he added the Union Jack as a gesture to celebrate VE Day and the end of the war.
In 1946 Ben Nicholson's work was exhibited in Britain, the USA and France, including 'An Exhibition of the Work of Modern British Artists' at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston and in a group show that included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at Lefevre. Ben Nicholson became the first foreign artist to be elected an honorary member of the American group Abstract Artists Association.
By 1949, following heated arguments between the abstract and figurative artists within the St Ives Society, Hepworth and Nicholson resigned to set up their own breakaway group called the Penwith Society of Arts. Penwith being the name given to the jutting edge of Cornish coast that Ben Nicholson and other artists had chosen as inspiration for their work. In the words of David Lewis quoted from his book 'St Ives, A Personal Memoir, 1947-55' "None of us realised that on this small lands end peninsular called Penwith, jutting out into the Atlantic, with its ever-changing moods of earth and sea and sky, an evolution in the modern movement of art was taking place." And beautifully portrayed in Ben Nicholson's drypoint etching 'Trendrine', edition of six and signed bottom left inside the boarder Ben Nicholson.
With his relationship with Hepworth deteriorating, Ben Nicholson began to travel extensively. Sketching and drawing his way through Europe, he returned to produce the delightful drypoint etching 'Pisa', edition of 20 and signed in pencil bottom left Ben Nicholson. Followed in 1953 with 'San Gimignano' an intricate etching signed in pencil bottom/middle left Ben Nicholson.
Split from Hepworth, Ben Nicholson continued to work from his Porthmeor Studio. In 1951 Ben Nicholson produced a specially commissioned mural as part of the Festival of Britain. This mural is now part of the Tate Collection.
Although Hepworth beat him to it, in 1950 Ben Nicholson was finally selected to represent Britain in the 1954 Venice Biennale, alongside Bacon and Freud.
In 1955 Ben Nicholson visited Paris for the opening of his exhibition at Musee d'Art Moderne and following his divorce, Nicholson moved to 'Trezion' right in the centre of St Ives. 'St. Ives from Trezion' is probably Nicholson's most significant etching, printed at Francois Lafranca's studio in 1967, edition of 50, this signed etching depicts to perfection how Nicholson saw a way of carving the surface of the paper so that it describes form in both a two dimensional and a three dimensional sense. His use of the line gives not only clarity of vision but also a special sense of rhythm. The use of the pattern of the shapes themselves is then extended into the form of the plate itself, so that it becomes a complete entity. Also this year the Tate gallery hosted a retrospective of his works and purchased three pieces.
By 1956 Ben Nicholson was a truly established international artist, winning the Guggenheim International painting prize for 'August 1956' (Val d'Orcia).
In July 1957 Ben Nicholson married for the third time. Felicitas Vogler was a German photograph and by the beginning of the following year Nicholson had packed up his pencils and paints and left Cornwall for good. The newlyweds set up home in Switzerland. Initially to a small house, just below Ronco called 'Casa Ticinella', where Nicholson was restricted to making small drawings. The signed etching 'Ronco', Lafranca 87, published 1967, edition size 50, signed in pencil Ben Nicholson bottom right and 'Tesseret' Lafranca 29, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson were created from this period. Soon after, Nicholson moved them to 'Casa Vecchia', in Ronco. The house was fully equipped with a large studio and Ben Nicholson returned to making reliefs.
1961 saw them move again, this time to 'Casa alla Rocca' a house nestled on the side of Lake Maggiore, designed by both Ben Nicholson and a young local architect. This same year the couple took in the ancient sights of Greece, visiting Mycaenae, Olympia and Paros. This trip and another with Victor Passmore in 1967 inspired a plethora of exquisite etchings: 'Patmos Monastery' (fragment) 1967, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Paros with Balcony' Lafranca 8, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Olympic Fragment 2' Lafranca 11 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Olympic Fragment' Lafranca 9 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Palaestra' Lafranca 28, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Storm over Paros' Lafranca 68, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Patmos Monastery' Lafranca 75, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Euboea' Lafranca 102, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Pros Tree' (etching and aquatint print) Lafranca 101, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Palaestra with Moon' Lafranca 118, 1967, unknown edition size, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. And 'Palaestra IV' Lafranca 112, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson.
The 1960's saw Ben Nicholson's work exhibited throughout the world, with major Retrospectives in Germany, London and the USA.
Following trips to Italy, including Florence in 1963, Ben Nicholson created the beautifully crafted etchings 'Tuscan Church Portico' Lafranca 7 (signed Etching and Aquatint) 'Aquileia' Lafranca 12, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Fragment of a Tuscan Cathedral' Lafranca 18, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Small Silent Siena' Lafranca 19, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Pisa' Lafranca 23, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Siena' (Large Version) Lafranca 22, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Lucca' Lafranca 24, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Pisa as Intended' Lafranca 42, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Verona' Lafranca 30b, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'San Gimigano' Lafranca 38, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Italian Mountain Village' (Lucca) Lafranca 116, 1967, edition size unknown, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. 'Pisa (Vertical) Lafranca 73, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson.
In 1968 Vogler and Ben Nicholson visited the Venice Biennale; they travelled (as they had before) to the ethereal island of Torcello, set in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. The beauty of the religious buildings inspired the etchings 'Torcello I' Lafranca 76, 1967, and 'Torcello II' Lafranca 90, 1969, both etchings are edition sizes of 50 and signed in pencil bottom right Ben Nicholson.
Ben Nicholson made a significant body of prints, which he produced in phases rather than continuously throughout his life. Between the wars he carved relief prints - apart from the one woodcut 'Five Circles' he worked only in linoleum; immediately after the Second World War Ben Nicholson made a small group of drypoints, famously 'Trendrine' and, in the 1960s, he executed a large group of etchings with the Swiss printer François Lafranca. Many are mentioned above and are signed etchings from series of prints called 'Suites' such as the etchings; 'Curled Turkish Form' and 'Turkish Sundial and Column', both are from a suite of 12 etching prints called 'Greek and Turkish Forms' and are printed with tone on woven paper, signed, dated (1966) and numbered from the edition of 50 in pencil; printed by Lafranca, Locarno, with their blindstamp and published by Ganymed Original Editions. The etchings 'Palästra' and 'Small Silent Siena' are two of ten etchings included in Ben Nicholson's 'architectural suite' (where 'small silent Siena' is entitled 'Siena').mad
When Ben Nicholson departed Cornwall in the mid 50's the Cornish Landscape left his paintings too. The landscape ceased to partner the still life in the way it had done in the 1940s. As the landscape recedes in his works there are distant echoes of the Synthetic Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque which Nicholson had first seen in Paris in 1920. Writing about Nicholson's still lifes at the beginning of the 1950s Norbert Lynton has written that 'our attention is sought first by the play of lines that represent the still life, secondly by the supporting planes that were the table, and thirdly by the wider setting and its implications of space and location' (quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 252). At first these works displayed only a semi-referential use of line that rarely fully delivered up the still life and colour is unassertive. As the period progresses the lines begin to coalesce and recognizable objects like a bottle, a jug or a goblet emerge from delicate patches of yellow, white and pale blue, creating a shifting, ambiguous sense of spatial relations. Transparent or lightly shaded areas are interspersed with solid accents of colour. This gradual change is echoed in many of Ben Nicholson's etching prints from the 1960's such as; the signed etching print 'Still Life with Curves' Lafranca 13, 1965, edition of 50. 'Small Still Life' Lafranca 40, 1967, edition of 25, signed in pencil bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Large Jug, Small Jug' Lafranca 44, 1967, edition of 100, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Three Goblets' Lafranca 51, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Two Bottles and Glass' Lafranca 86, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Kesiner Print 66', 1966, edition of 300, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Complicated Forms' Lafranca 48, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Two Goblets and a Mug' Lafranca 115, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Single Form' Lafranca 114, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Bird Form' Lafranca 113, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Half Mug, Half Jug' Lafranca 96, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Complex of Goblets' Lafranca 51, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Still Life with Grey' Lafranca 83, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. 'Two Sculptural Forms' Lafranca 89, 1968, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. And Etching and Aquatint print 'Goblet Forms' Lafranca 91, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson.
Having declined most awards bestowed upon him, Ben Nicholson finally accepted the British Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth in 1968. By 1977 Nicholson had divorced his third wife and moved to London, where he continued to paint, from his studio in Chelsea until his death in 1982.
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