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Around the galleries

A sense of space - the early work of Ben Nicholson

— May 2014

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Ben Nicholson, Cumberland Farm, Brighton

Ben Nicholson’s work is being shown alongside that of his contemporaries at Kettle’s Yard. David Ecclestone looks at the work of this very English modernist

With any exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, the temptation is always to start with the place itself – its charm, its uniqueness, its Cambridgeness.  But I want to start with the catalogue.  It is itself a work of art – lavish, large-format, fully illustrated, and with essays by Sebastiano Barassi, Julian Stair and Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, who also curated the exhibition. The writing is both authentic and entertaining.  I am starting here because the beautiful illustrations go right to the heart of the exhibition experience and indeed to something of Ben’s that is quoted in the catalogue: ‘Dufy in original is not a patch on his photos & fairly moderate 7th rate’.  I found this divergence to be particularly pronounced in this exhibition.  There is something in a photograph that presents a barrier between the viewer and the painting.  It adds authenticity that may be entirely lacking in the original.  This was Nicholson’s experience with Dufy and mine with Nicholson. 

Of course, any painter makes decisions about how much of the artist’s hand he wants to expose on the canvas and such thoughtful artists as the Nicholsons will have given this consideration.  A catalogue illustration of an early work, 1917 (Portrait of Edie), makes it clear that in his  early style Ben was concerned to eliminate obvious brushwork, so his decision in the 1920s to make the painterly nature of the work obvious was a matter of choice.  Was this the right one given the emerging philosophy behind his work?

In considering this question, I want to compare Ben’s work with that of Christopher Wood who is assigned a supporting role in the exhibition.  If we take the works they produced, drawing and painting side by side in Cumberland, the pencil sketches tell us a lot about their divergence.  Wood’s Cumberland Landscape (1928) is full of detail – buildings, trees, hatchings and smudgings that define minor declivities in the contour of the land.  Nicholson’s c. 1928 (The River Irthing), hung next to it, is austere – much more paper than pencil.  The buildings are gone and the broad sweep of the river comes centre-stage. 

Wood wants to walk us through the countryside, to feel the ground under our feet.  Nicholson is much more concerned with making us sense the space.  Nicholson’s oil, 1926 (Landscape with River and Trees), makes this even more explicit.  The trees are icons rather than living things. They become markers for the shape of the land.  The sky and the river in the same pastel blue serve the same function, delimiting the front and the back of pictorial space.  All this is brought out strongly in the catalogue illustration, which suppresses the texture of the canvas, but on the wall we are almost oppressed by the ‘objectness’ of the painting; we can’t evade the fact of the canvas and the painterly nature of the brushstrokes.  It is difficult to go to what concerned the painter because we become trapped by the facts of the fabrication.

Perhaps there is an awareness of the problem in Nicholson’s 1930 (Cumberland Farm).  This involved the use of a thick white primer that was also used to cover a previously worked surface and allow a build up of fresh pigment.  The greater density of the paint, and the darker colours used, allow us to see this more readily as a reading of space.  The house, which is admitted to the composition this time, serves as an assertive contour marker and a still centre around which the space can be assembled.

If Nicholson was starting to address the problems of this almost haptic approach to landscape, Wood was to return to the area where he was more at home: the expression of his personal reaction to a subject rather than the search for universal fundamentals.  In The Blue Necklace of 1928, his intense feelings for his lover, Frosca Munster, emerge strongly despite the restraint of the artistic language.  Wood was bisexual, a long-term homosexual relationship surviving excursions into his love for women.  The pressures in his life, both emotional and financial, may be reflected in his final artistic inflexion – towards the metaphysical.  It is easy to read Zebra and Parachute (1930) as reflecting a sense of foreboding.  The building is Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye,  an icon of modernism; the figure suspended from the parachute looks lifeless; the matter-of-fact realism with which the zebra is painted only underlines how out of place it is.  Later that year, Wood, still under 30, threw himself under an express train.  You sense that Wood’s sensitivity might have been able to reach full expression in this new vernacular, given time.

Nicholson’s work of this period (basically the 1920s) is one of moving towards the abstract paintings and reliefs of the 1930s that are briefly presented here as an appropriate coda.  Among these transitional landscapes do not look for masterpieces, although perhaps 1928 (Pill Creek) comes closest.  In making your own judgement, avoid reproductions; as Nicholson himself was aware, they often do favours.


David Ecclestone
Art historian

Editor's notes

‘Art and Life 1920–1931’ is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until 11 May 2014, then at Dulwich Picture Gallery,  4 June – 21 September 2014. The artists featured are Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis,  and William Staite Murray

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