Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ben and Winifred Nicholson: Art and Life 1920-1931 at Ways With Words, Dartington.

Jovan Nicholson gave a talk about his grandparents Winifred and Ben Nicholson as part of the Dartington Ways With Words Festival in July this year. He has curated an exhibition of their work, Art and Life 1920-1931, which is currently on display at the Dulwich Pictuer Gallery in London. The show also incorporates three other artists with whom the Nicholsons were close in the 1920s and early 30s: Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William State Murray. Nicholson was particularly enthusiastic about his inclusion of the latter. He hopes that this renewed exposure will go some way towards reviving the reputation of a potter whom he feels was one of the finest exponents of the art in Britain in the twentieth century, quite the equal of his contemporary Bernard Leach.

Ben and Winifred Nicholson in 1923
Nicholson’s approach to his subjects in the exhibition and the accompanying book is a comparitive one, and this was the approach he took in the talk as well. He set particular works alongside each other, and thereby illustrated ho the artists influenced and inspired one another. They sometimes painted or drew the same landscapes in their own individual manner, initial similarities gradually diverging significantly as they established their signature styles and outlooks. Ben’s pencil sketch and Winifred’s watercolour of a rural hillside scene at Tippacott in Devon, where they went in 1920 just before their marriage (in fact, they got engaged during this trip), show a congruent, straightforwardly representational approach to the view. Trees, hedgerows and hillcrest contours are all present and relatively proportional in both pictures. At this formative point in their artistic development, their way of seeing the world was largely convergent. Later, and speaking in a broadly general sense. Jovan outlined the way in which their work would diverge: Winifred would concentrate more on colour, and Ben on form.

Winifred found her metier early on, painting some of her first threshold flowers in 1921, the painting Polyanthus and Cineraria being a good example. Its bright contrasts pointed to her future explorations of colour combinations, whilst the undulant brushstroke of blues above the brown flowers on the left side of the vase anticipates in abbreviated form the exuberant, canvas wide waves of her 1928 St Ives painting Boat on a Stormy Sea. Jovan drew attention to the metaphysical and symbolic elements of Winifred’s principal subject matter. The division between domestic interior and exterior landscape, with the nurtured blend of floral colours (and the stable forms of the vases, jugs or glasses from which they emerge) placed in between, represent the conscious act of seeing, of intense, aware vision.

Winifred's Chelsea roofscape on the cover of Christopher Andreae's book
Ben took longer to explore and develop his feel for austere, simplified form, which eventually led him towards total abstraction. An early abstract painting from 1924 was shown here, but it was a tentative experiment which didn’t immediately lead anywhere. It was held back and worked on over a long period of time. It derived from a collage, and the ragged edges and superimposed rectilinear shapes were faithfully reproduced; in its own way, a piece of representational art. Jovan’s comparison with Winifred’s window-framed 1925 roofscape, Kings Road, Chelsea, painted from the same Chelsea studio in which this work was created, led you to see a similar arrangement of chimneys, brickwork, sloping roofs and squares of sky in Ben’s abstract.

Slides were shown in carefully chosen pairs, projected onto the white plaster wall of Dartington Hall, above the large mouth of the fireplace. This provided an interesting and generally highly appropriate additional element of medieval texture. Ben Nicholson’s 1925 still life Jamaique was shown alongside Winifred’s Flowers in a Glass Jar from the same year. It amply served to demonstrate how far they had diverged in their approaches by this point. But Jovan pointed out the clear correlation between the pink pentagonal base on which Ben set his flattened objects and the pink which Winifred used for the principal flowers in her composition. William Staite Murray’s elegantly shaped bowls, pots and vases with their boldly imaginative patterning and painted designs, and the unconventionally shaped boards which Alfred Wallis used, which often guided the compositional form of his paintings, were shown to have inspired Ben to be daring and intuitive in his own explorations of form. His instinct towards reduction, a preference for simplicity and a stripping away of extraneous detail, was encouraged by his exposure to Wallis’ work. The extent to which he began following through on this instinct was seen in the two drawings of the same Cumberland landscape made by Ben and Christopher Wood on a sketching trip they made together in 1928. Wood’s depiction of the scene is full, depicting all the elements he saw before him: outlined trees, a farmhouse, a river, a shaded hillside horizon line and a chimney smoke haze. It pointed to a richly detailed landscape which might later be produced. Ben, on the other hand, leaves wide expanses of empty space, with a few boldly outlined trees scattered singly or in tight clusters and the outline of the River Irthing sharply curving across the flattened foreground. The horizon is marked by a single lollipop-shaped tree, a darkly shaded marker beacon. The farmhouse has completely vanished, surplus to compositional requirements. Ben was now transforming what he saw to conform with his own rigorous artistic vision.

Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight - Winifred Nicholson
Jovan talked about the work rather than the lives of his grandparents. Personal touches did come through, however. He confessed that he found it almost impossible to rad the recriminating letters they wrote to each other when the marriage was falling apart in the early 30s. Winifred’s 1931-2 painting Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight, depicting two of their three children sitting at the table of the house she had rented at Fishbourne for the winter, dates from the period of their separation, after Ben had gone to live with Barbara Hepworth. Jake and Kate wear party hats, which suggests it might be Christmas. But as Jovan pointed out, they look bewildered and lost rather than excited. The disjuncture between the light colours and carnival hats and the children’s sombre faces is very poignant. Jovan evidently felt an empathetic connection with them as he described their expressions. ‘The one on the left is my father’ he added, almost incidentally.

He also showed his steel when a questioner at the end implied that there might have been an element of exploitation in Ben’s relationship with Alfred Wallis, and that he made a healthy profit from selling his paintings on to London dealers. Jovan took a deep breath before replying, paused significantly and acidly thanked the person in question for giving him the opportunity to put such myths to rest, which he proceeded to do with thoroughness and conviction. His grandfather’s honour was vigorously defended, and Wallis depicted as a sharp, highly self-aware individual. Not the sort to allow themselves to be exploited by anyone. He firmly stated that he had found no evidence of Ben ever selling any of the Wallis paintings that he had bought. Rather, he donated a good many to a wide variety of galleries and museums. This, together with his tireless promotion of Wallis’ work, raised (and indeed initially created) Wallis’ profile in the eyes of the metropolitan art world, and brought people to his door in St Ives, generating many commissions. For this, he was vocally grateful, and Jovan told us that he loved the attention which he received as a result.

He also countered the general perception that Ben could be doctrinaire and hardline in his promulgation of the artistic school of thought he happened to favour, his work ascetic and forbidding as a result. He emphasised the humour he found in his work. The trompe l’oeil play with perspective in his 1925 Still Life With Jug, Mugs, Cup and Goblet, for example, the white goblet on the left being simultaneously in front of and behind the adjacent slate grey vase. His animals display a certain childlike delight, too. Jovan found this sense of ‘fun’ in Wallis’ work, as well. The parallel array of pyramidal sails and icebergs in Schooner and Icebergs (1928) was highlighted as an example of Wallis’ lightness and humour.

Poster for the Kettle's Yard showing of Art and Life, with Ben Nicholson's Jamaique
He was also fulsome in his praise for Jim Ede, the former Tate Gallery curator who set up home in four converted cottages in Kettles Yard, Cambridge in the 50s. He was also a long-term supporter of Wallis, and of Ben and Winifred. Kettles Yard housed a good number of their works which he had bought for his own collection. It still does to this day, as a wonderfully atmospheric house and gallery, the paintings and drawings taking their place amongst aesthetically arranged domestic objects and fittings (Wallises in the bathroom, Nicholsons above the bed). His use of the familiar diminutive ‘Kit’ when referring to Christopher Wood suggested a feeling of personal connection here, too.

Wood’s ravishingly sensual portrait of the aristocratic Russian émigré Frosca Munster, The Blue Necklace (1928) paints a picture of an emotionally complex man, as Jovan explained. Letters between the two, and from Winifred to Frosca, made the depths of Kit’s feeling for her plain. Her departure from Cornwall, and the British Isles, was almost certainly precipitated by her becoming pregnant by him, and he was left bereft by her sudden absence from his life. His primarily gay sexuality was frankly expressed in the 1930 interior Nude Boy in a Bedroom, which Jovan also showed us. It has a casual, relaxed sense of intimacy, with the subject half-turned away from our (and the artist’s) view as he dries himself with a towel. Picture cards are scattered on the bed as if they’d just been studied (the boy is looking at another small reproduction on the wall) and the shutters are half closed, letting in light whilst maintaining a sense of a private domestic world.

Christopher Wood - Zebra and Parachute
Jovan showed us the last painting Wood finished before his suicide in 1930, Zebra and Parachute. The stark, white lines and masses of the modernist architecture in front of which the passive body of the zebra is posed have echoes of the white reliefs which Ben would produce in the mid-30s. They also anticipate Berthold Lubetkin’s introduction of European International Style modernism to London Zoo (and England) in 1933-4 via the gorilla house and penguin pool he designed for Tecton. But the hanged man limply suspended beneath the bright colours of the parachute in the background, along with the incongruously exotic creature in the foreground, hint at a possible turn towards surrealism belying the ascetic modernist backdrop. This would certainly have put him at artistic odds with Ben, widening the personal rift which his heavy use of opium had already opened up.

The period whose end was so tragically and drastically underlined by Wood’s death, and soon after by the break up of the Nicholsons’ marriage, saw the group of friends and compatriots who had been so close in the 1920s drift apart both personally and in terms of artistic style and intent. But during that intense decade during which they shared each other’s thoughts, homes and paints, they left a lasting mark on each other which continued to make itself felt in their work. The 20s were the years in which the seeds were sown, and the enriching cross-fertilisation took place. Jovan Nicholson’s talk, his book and the exhibition which he has curated ably and definitively traces the streams of influence and inspiration which flowed between them, and which kept them invisibly connected throughout their lives, no matter how far their outlook diverged, or how strongly their opinions were expressed. Some things just can’t be broken.

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