Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall

BBC4′s documentary, The Art of Cornwall, explored how the small colony of artists in St Ives became as important as Paris or London during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The central focus of the film was on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – the latter first visited St Ives in 1928 when he discovered the mariner and primitive painter, Alfred Wallis.  The programme also examined how a younger generation of artists, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, were also influenced by the Cornish landscape.

Nicholson and Hepworth were central figures in the thriving modernist art scene in 1930s London. Nicholson had begun his career painting landscapes and still lifes, but inspired by Mondrian, gradually turned to abstract art.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, recently married to Hepworth and with three young children, Nicholson reluctantly decided to leave London for the safety of Cornwall.  As the couple drove to the end of their road in Hampstead, they noticed Mondrian standing on the corner. They pulled over, rolled down the window and begged him to join them. He refused: he hated the countryside and anything green. Nicholson once recounted how Mondrian, noticing the leaves of a chestnut tree just visible through the skylight of Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, shook his head in disapproval and said: ‘Too much nature’.

When he first arrived in Cornwall, Nicholson went on with the white reliefs that he had been making in London.  They were made in the spirit of quietness and composure that Nicholson had admired in Mondrian’s studio. In St Ives, however:

Outside his Cornish studio the world must have seemed exceedingly disorderly: most days the sky going by at a ttremendous pace; the sluicing of waves and exploding of breakers, that endless pitiless tugging at the headlands by the sea; prevailing winds, quoits and stone hedges; the underworld of tin lodes; the hardship of it all, generastion after generation; harbours, like churchyards, bobbing with coffins.  Only very slowly did this have an effect on what he was doing.
- Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

But the landscape did have an effect, modulated through his abstraction.  In addition, the film suggested, Nicholson turned to landscapes in order to earn a living during the war years. Paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window with still-life elements in the foreground (below and top).

Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
- Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

In 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) below, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea.  This work was completed in 1945 with the addition of the union jack as a gesture to celebrate V.E. Day and the end of the war.

These landscapes, with their primitivist style, reflect the influence of Alfred Wallis, whose work Nicholson had first encountered in St Ives in 1928. With fellow-artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson had chanced upon Wallis, seeing him painting through the open door of his cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:

passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.

Alfred Wallis had spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of 70 ‘for company’ after the death of his wife.  Wood and Nicholson saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work.

Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences – he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the St Ives townscape and the countryside immediately surrounding the town.  He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance – the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings.

Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. As he put it, his subjects were ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [Wikipedia].   Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes using a limited palette of paint bought from ships’ chandlers.  Two Boats (above) is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, while The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach (below) was painted on the back of a printed advertisement for an exhibition.  It is a view of St. Ives in which the elements are rearranged so that they depart from strict topographical accuracy. It shows the promontary at St. Ives known as ‘The Island’, part of Porthmeor Beach (one end of which adjoins the Island), and Porthmeor Square.

After the war, though Nicholson returned to abstraction, he continued to paint the Cornish landscape. Window in Cornwall and November 11 (Mousehole) (below) were both painted in 1947.

The two etchings of St Ives rooftops (above) were made in the 1960s, overworked by hand by Nicholson in pencil and gouache.   June 11 1949 (Cornish Landscape) (below) is one of a small group of compositions depicting farms near Halsetown, above St Ives. The building in the work is Chytodden Farm, near Towednack. An inscription written by the man who came to dominate the St Ives group in the post-war period, Patrick Heron, on the back of the composition – ‘Towednack’ – confirms the location of the view that Nicholson captured.

At the close of the programme the presenter, Dr James Fox descended into the bowels of the Tate where an assistant hauled out from storage the huge Patrick Heron painting, Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (above) – perhaps the most arresting moment in the documentary.

Patrick Heron was born in Leeds in 1920 into a family of uncompromising nonconformism. His father was an art lover, socialist and pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, while his mother, too, was a pacifist and of fiercely independent spirit, with a passionate eye for the natural world.  Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founder member of CND, and an active conservationist. He hated with a passion the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and refused a knighthood when it was offered by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1925 the Heron family moved from Leeds to Newlyn, where Patrick’s father ran a textile business. Patrick’s early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was influenced deeply by the light, colour and landscape of what he called the ‘sacred land’ of his childhood. He never forgot childhood holidays that the family spent at Eagles Nest, the house above Zennor.

Patrick Heron The Boats And The Iron Ladder, 1947

Patrick Heron: Boats at Night 1947

In 1956, Heron was able to buy Eagles Nest, and moved in with his wife Delia and their young family.  From that time on, the house was the centre of his imaginative existence:

This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting.

Though his work now became non-figurative, it remained profoundly influenced by the landscape of West Penwith.  Among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.

Azalea Garden [below] was one of the paintings made in the first months at Eagles Nest… I referred to the series as ‘garden paintings’, since they certainly related in my mind to the extraordinary effervescence of flowering azaleas and camellias which was erupting all over the garden, amongst the granite boulders, at Eagles Nest when we moved down to begin our lives here. …The well-known crisis which confronted many British painters of my generation – I mean the moving over from overt figuration, however abstract, to overt non-figuration – overtook me at about this time.

‘The ancient valid response of the painter to the world around him is one of delight and amazement, and we must recapture it.’

The wild landscape around Eagles’ Nest inspired the floating boulder shapes and promontories of the large, Matisse-like abstract canvases that followed in the 1960s and 1970s – acrylics and prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes.

Patrick Heron and his wife Delia are buried in the churchyard at Zennor.  This photo was taken when we visited in 2006.

Patrick Heron designed the huge stained glass window that was installed in the entrance hall of the Tate St Ives gallery when it opened in 1993.

Patrick Heron Window for Tate Gallery St Ives 1992-93 (detail)

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24 thoughts on “Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall

  1. Thank you for your blog. I’m really enjoying it.
    As a British expat of nearly two decades, now living on the west coast of America, I’m finding your writing hugely informative about the political and art goings on back at home. I follow the news and keep in touch with friends and family, of course, but I haven’t found anything of this depth yet.

    I came to it via a BBC photo essay about the Cornwall painters, then a Google search of their work led me to your blog.

    I look forward to future observations!

    SL

  2. It was an interesting BBC programme-and had a lot to say about Lanyon too-an exhibition of his work is on at Tate St Ives now, finishing Jan 23rd-well worth a visit.
    I stayed at Eagles Nest ten years ago when part of the complex,the old Workhouse, used to be let for painting holidays.Wonderful views from that height of the ancient field systems and walls, leading to a huge expanse of sea. No longer to let, sadly, but Heron’s daughter said that she and her husband were now living at Eagles Nest which is great! Anyone can get the feel of Heron’s studio on Porthmeor beach at the moment as it is in use by the St Ives School of Painting for short courses, while their own studio is restored.
    Really loved your quotes from Neve’s Unquiet Landscape-a fantastic read and one that I have never heard mentioned by anyone else before. Thanks for this, and all the other fascinating and enriching material you share with us, Gerry!

  3. John – I’m glad you enjoy the blog – although I write it for myself, as a record of things I’ve done, it’s good to know it has something of interest to others as well. Just click on the ‘Posts’ link at top right to subscribe to the RSS feed.

  4. Gerry, Thanks for this post. I love seeing all the Nicholson Cornwall images. Most of them are not reproduced in the Nicholson books that I have. I have been a big fan of Nicholson for decades and am planning a trip to Cornwall next fall. Is there anything Nicholsonian to be found in St. Ives besides the views?
    Thanks

    • Thanks for your generous remarks, Daniel. There’s a list of Ben Nicholson works held in the Tate collection here – http://bit.ly/wJnF51 – but whether any would be on display in Tate St Ives is a matter of chance. Best to watch out for them mounting a dedicated exhibition – they did one in 2008 that included a lot of his landscapes. You can peruse it here: http://bit.ly/w6P1fe. Unless you’re very lucky, you’d be more likely to encounter Nicholson in London (at Tate Britain). Tate St Ives website is here: http://bit.ly/ygC2Yo. They have a useful resource on the history of art in St Ives here: http://bit.ly/A2iVQe. Cornwall is a wonderful place to visit – especially the very southwest beyond St Ives (called West Penwith) – rugged moors, cliffs, sheltered coves with golden sands. Marvellous. We had a lovely short break in northern Cornwall in September 2010, blessed with good weather, that I blogged starting here: http://wp.me/poJrg-1dY.

      • Thanks, Gerry. I’ll check out your links. We saw some wonderful Nicholson’s at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge last year. Have you been there? It’s an incredible little museum. They have quite a few paintings by Wallis and almost all the Gaudier Breszka’s in existence.

    • HI Gerry,
      That Mondrian/ Nicholson show sounds wonderful. Two of my all time favorite artists. I wish I could see it, but I’m in San Francisco. Where do you live?
      You will love Kettle’s Yard. I’ve never been to a museum quite like it before. It’s very intimate. It’s more like you’re in someone’s home than a museum (in fact you are actually in someone’s home. That someone just happens to have been an amazing collector) The staff is made up entirely of old lady volunteers who are passionate about the museum.
      If you’re at all interested in seeing who I am, check out the film “We Were Here” that will be on BBC 4 this coming Monday. It’s a powerful and very made film.
      Cheers,
      Daniel

      • Hi Daniel I am enormously grateful to you for alerting me to ‘We Were Here’. I would have missed it otherwise, because, as I’ve just said in my new post, it came unheralded by the BBC or my newspaper, The Guardian (which I would have expected to pick up on it). I believe it is one of the finest documentaries in the humanist tradition that I have ever seen. The rest is in my post. But I don’t know how you did it, maintaining your composure through the interview and recalling those terrible experiences. But the film is both elegiac and a hymn to love and compassion. I live in Liverpool, and many of my posts testify to my love for this city to which I came as a student 40-odd years ago and have not left since. We’re going on a short break to London week after next, so I hope to see the Mondrian/Nicholson exhibition. Watch out for it on the blog. Best wishes Gerry

      • Gerry,
        Thanks for the beautifully written blog. I hope you have a lot of followers. This film is so important for so many reasons. We were so disappointed that it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It came close, but not in the final five. A nomination would have opened the film up to a much larger audience. Ah, well. Hollywood. Not really surprising when you look at what kind of movies they do honor.. If you wouldn’t mind going to the FB page of “We Were Here” and posting a link to your blog, I’m sure the films FB followers would love to read it.
        Have a great time in London and I’ll look forward to a blog about the Mondrian/Nicholson exhibition.

      • Thanks for your kind remarks, Daniel. The film certainly did deserve prizes – whether at Sundance or the Oscars (I should mention, for those happening by here, that this conversation relatesto my post about ‘We Were Here’: http://wp.me/poJrg-2gl)

  5. Best info yet! Have been looking for more on Ben Nicholson, on and off for a few years now. This has been enlightening, Thanks!

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