Project – Drawing Fruit and Vegetables in Colour


Research Point – Ben Nicholson

Find out about Ben Nicholson? Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on Cornish landscapes?

Ben Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire in 1894 with established painters for parents and a member of an artistic dynasty. He could hardly fail!

He briefly attended the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910/11 but is generally considered to be self-taught.

His early paintings were soft and luminous still lifes and landscapes in a traditional manner with some influence from his father’s style, the well respected painter, Sir William Nicholson

He travelled extensively in Europe between 1911 and 1914 and in 1917 he visited America and sketched architecture and landscapes. In Pasadena he saw his first Cubist painting, a work by Picasso, and deemed it to be a life changing event. However when he returned to England he still painted conventional still lifes and landscapes though some of the styles of recent masters and also contemporaries crept into his paintings.

In 1921 during a visit to Paris with his new wife, painter  Winifred Roberts, he was impressed by the works of Cezanne and also Cubism and later incorporated abstraction into his still lifes.

In 1922 the Adelphi Gallery in London held his first solo exhibition which was mainly of still lifes and landscapes.


After later visits to Paris he started painting figurative and abstract works inspired by Post- Impressionism and also Cubism and in 1924 the Twenty One Gallery featured his first exhibition of abstracts. However it is known that he was not satisfied with his early abstract works as he considered they did not express ideas beyond their appearance.

In 1928 he first visited Cornwall and from a chance meeting became interested in the art of Alfred Wallis the untrained painter of St Ives and was the first purchaser of one of his paintings. Nicholson soon began incorporating primitivism into his own paintings

Nicholson met Barbara Hepworth in the late twenties, who encouraged him to produce linocuts and woodcuts, and with whom he  eventiually shared a studio in Hampstead. Hepworth became his second wife in 1934 and together they made many visits to Paris and met with George Braque, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and later the Dutch painter Piet Modrian. Inspired by their works and particularly Picasso from then on Nicholson painted abstracts and also created white reliefs in wood.

Nicholson became the link between the rising international abstract movement and England and was at the centre of British Avant Garde. He is credited with blending the abstract styles that he saw in his travels abroad into his own original works.

Between 1935 and 1937 Nicolson produced his white reliefs, carved from boards, and for which he was to  be famous.

Of the simplicity and purity of these works Nicholson explained, “As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity – an ideal which is complete, with no beginning, no end and therefore giving to all things for all time.”

He became the editor of Circle, one of the founding documents of modern and constructive art, and he was also a member of the artist’s group Unit One which produced a Book of Statements by eleven influential painters, sculptors and designers.

In 1939 Nicholson and his family moved to St Ives  and was moved to change his style from the simple linear shapes to coloured abstract reliefs but also still lifes and local landscapes, often combined with Cubist images. The change was probably brought about by the need to make his work more accessible to the public and their pockets in the War years.

Nicholson was very active in the artist community in St Ives influencing many local artists and joined the St Ives Society of Artists and after a clash of beliefs he founded the breakaway group the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949.

He divorced Barbara Hepworth in 1951 and travelled extensively throughout Europe. He left Cornwall in 1957 to live in Switzerland and married a photographer, Felicitas Vogler. He then began painting coloured reliefs again and made many etchings..

Whilst Nicholson was successful in the UK he was not internationally recognised until he was in his late fifties when he began to exhibit extensively throughout Europe and America and win many awards. In 1965 he received the Order of Merit. The Sixties and seventies were probably his most remunerative period with many prints made of his works now mostly etchings and still lifes, figurative and abstract.

In 1971 he moved back to England living in Cambridge and then London where he died in 1982.

Ben Nicolson was a major contributor to Twentieth Century British modern art and was probably best known for his works “White Relief” which contained only right angles and circles. A representative sample of his typical works might be the following paintings.

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1914 – The Striped Jug. A well executed painting which demonstrates that Nicholson had classic artistic talent. Nicholson collected mugs, jugs and goblets an influence or interest maybe inherited from his father.

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1917 – Portrait of Edie (Nicholson’s stepmother). An accomplished classic portrait.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1922 – Cold Fell. A strange contrast of tones and colours bearing in mind that many of Nicholson’s paintings were in neutral colours.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1924 – Goblet and Two Pears. A rather simplistic painting, perhaps influenced by Cubism but an example of what was to come.


1924 – First Abstract Painting. Reflecting his experience of Cubism. Shallow space and overlapping planes coupled with clean lines and no ornamentation. Perhaps not his greatest work.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1928 – Cumbrian Landscape. A rather primitive painting perhaps influenced by his recent meeting with Alfred Wallis.

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1934 – Still Life Birdie. A pleasant still life painting with some of Nicholson’s usual objects and in Cubist style

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1935 – White Relief. Carved from a table leaf bought in Camden Market. The simple style is probably a reflection of Nicholson on the political and economic turmoil in which Europe was embroiled in that period.

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1936 – Second White Relief, Again the purity of the white  and the form typifies what Nicholson might have wished of the future..

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1939 – Painted Relief. A move from white to coloured reliefs often in different planes, the effect, I think, was to produce a floating central plane.

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1940/42 – Two Forms. In contrast to Mondian Nicholson’s shapes are contained within the canvas and appear a bit muddled, i.e. unstable. However his contrasts of colour may be more interesting.

Liz Taunt; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1943/45 – St Ives.  An experiment with planes and space. A view from his studio window.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1947 – Mousehole.  A Cubist still life bringing together a naive  landscape and random abstract figures.

Ben Nicholson’s career output followed many twists and turns. His early works portray a competent, classic talent that could have garnered him a good living. However he moves on to other influences and creations and some not so remunerative at the time.

Did he emulate others or did he tread his own path? It is generally considered the latter. Whilst he was influenced by many, he developed his own style within those genres and that made him a British Great.


Text – Dominic Guerrini, Tate, Artcornwall.

Images – Tate, BBC – Your Paintings



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s