Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’

Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’

1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) 1921-circa 1923 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982

Ben Nicholson, 1921 – c 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)

Art and Life 1920-1931 at Leeds Art Gallery is an exhibition about friendship.  Brilliantly and excitingly, it fills two rooms with works that also speak of a time of passionate argument and exploration in British art.  Its focus is the artistic partnership between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson in the 1920s, and their friendship with Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.

The Nicholsons and Wood were affected by and, in their different ways, absorbed the experimental ethos of continental modernism.  But the three artists – who often painted side by side to produce impressions of the same landscape – were also drawn to to whether, as Paul Nash put it, it was possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’.  Like Nash (another close friend), the Nicholsons and Wood were drawn to paint landscapes and flowers, but were fascinated, too, by the formal experiments of their contemporaries.

Battle lines had been drawn in the first two decades of the century, succinctly put by Nash in an article for Axis, the British art magazine in which these arguments raged every quarter:

Internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

Winifred and Ben had joined the ‘7 and 5’ Society in 1924, later bringing in their friend Christopher Wood. The ‘7 and 5’ (seven painters, five sculptors) had been formed in London in 1919 and was originally intended to champion traditional, conservative artistic sensibilities: ‘We feel that there has of late been too much pioneering along too many lines in altogether too much of a hurry’, asserted the first exhibition catalogue.  But the Nicholsons, along with  others such as David Jones, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, changed the society into one that championed modernism (in 1935, the group was renamed the Seven and Five Abstract Group).

Ben and Winifred’s marriage in 1920 marked the beginning of a highly creative partnership. They painted side by side, experimenting and sharing ideas whilst studying the same landscapes and still lifes. Together they taught and learnt from each other, working at various times in Lugano, Dulwich, Cumberland and Cornwall. Like other artists in this fruitful period for British art, their work was inspired by their surroundings, at the same time as it absorbed the influences of contemporary artists working in London and on the continent.

Whether it originated in the dazzling snowlight of Switzerland, the silvery-grey light of Paris, the sharp Atlantic brightness of Cornwall or the notes of clear white from whitewashed houses in a green Cumberland landscape, a vibrancy found its way into the Nicholsons’ work [as they responded to] the colour and rhythms of the surrounding landscape.
– Christopher Neve

As their work shifted away from realism, they both came to believe that a picture should be allowed to stand on its own merits without being compared with the object depicted: pictures should be living things with a rhythm and flow like music.  Winifred’s work especially revealed a romantic temperament, a belief that it was less important whether a picture was representational or not than that it should have a life of its own.  Her art was evolving, in Christopher Neve’s words, ‘in the direction of wild flowers, distant mountains, the sea, softer and more ambiguous forms, half-seen, remembered or only suspected’.

Cyclamen and Primula, 1922-23

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, 1922-23

Art and Life has been curated by Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, and his personal knowledge and experience of the artists makes the exhibition a particularly interesting exploration of the couple’s experimentation during the 1920s that also reveals how their practice interacted with fellow artists.

Winifred and Ben’s paintings were quite different. Winifred’s emphasis was strongly on colour and light whereas Ben focused more on line, muted colours and abstract, simple forms.  As Christopher Neve has written:

Winifred Nicholson was already seeing colour as a series of iridescent veils, dissolving edges.  Ben Nicholson’s instinctive links with Cezanne and Cubism, on the other hand, discouraged him from relinquishing shapes, forms and lines, however much they drifted and crossed.

Ben Nicholson, Jar and Goblet, 1925

Christopher Wood was born in Knowsley, just outside Liverpool, and went on to study architecture briefly at Liverpool University just after the war. Then, in London in 1920, the French collector Alphonse Kahn invited Wood to Paris, where he studied drawing and absorbed modernist influences.  He met the Nicholsons in 1926 and became a close friend, living with them for periods of time in Cumbria and St Ives in Cornwall.

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, 1921

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, 1921

Art and Life is divided into four sections – three of them presenting work associated with locations where the artists spent time in the 1920s, the last pointing towards their diverging paths in the following decade.

Lugano and London

After their marriage in 1920 the Nicholsons spent the next three winters in in a villa overlooking Lake Lugano in Switzerland, stopping off in Paris on the way there and back. They were particularly attracted to the Cubist works of Picasso and in Lugano they patiently absorbed the lessons of Paris. They experimented and painted intensely, often outside and in the snow, and gradually began to find their own individual styles.

It was during those years that Ben Nicholson broke away from naturalism and developed an interest in modern French and early Italian painting. 1921-circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) seen at the top of this post takes for its subject Cortivallo, one of the villages near Lake Lugano. In its appearance and much of its technique the picture reflects Paul Cézanne’s landscape paintings of the 1880s and 1890s, especially those of Mont Ste Victoire. The cubistic rendering of buildings, rough modelling of forms and unfinished brushwork are all reminiscent of Cézanne’s style.

It was in Lugano that Winifred Nicholson first painted flowers on a window sill with a view behind, as for example in Polyanthus and Cineraria; this became her favourite subject which she varied and evolved throughout the rest of her painting life.

 Ben Nicholson, 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)

 Ben Nicholson, 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)

For Ben Nicholson the process of artistic development led, eventually, to the reliefs and abstracts of the 1930s. The first abstract he painted is on display here – 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea) – one of only a few such works made by British artists in this period. While other British avant-garde artists tended to use still life or landscape as a way into abstract experimentation, Nicholson displays a sophisticated understanding of Cubism in its insistence on shallow space and overlapping planes. It’s a painting that was very advanced in the context of British art in this period, where the notion of abstraction was primarily equated with the distortion of natural appearance.  However, it would be another ten years before Nicholson returned to complete abstraction

Ben Nicholson, 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet)

Ben Nicholson, 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet)

For me, though, it’s less radical but still challenging works such as 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet) and Dymchurch Beach, 1923 that thrill me.  It’s interesting to compare Nicholson’s representation of Dymchurch beach with that of his friend Paul Nash, made in the same year (not in this show, but on display elsewhere in the gallery).

Ben Nicholson, Dymchurch Beach, 1923

Ben Nicholson, Dymchurch Beach, 1923

Paul Nash, The Shore, 1923

Paul Nash, The Shore, 1923

Cumberland

The earth of Cumberland is my earth … I have always lived in Cumberland – the call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of the lonely fells is my mystery, and the sliver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.
-Winifred Nicholson

Throughout the 1920s, although the Nicholsons moved around a fair bit, painting in Chelsea and Dulwich, Dymchurch in Kent, Sutton Veny in Wiltshire, and Feock and St. Ives in Cornwall, it was Cumberland where they made their home. In 1923 they purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse straddling Hadrian’s Wall in north east Cumberland. They began to explore the surrounding landscape together, often painting the distant rolling fells.

Banks Head

Banks Head, Cumberland

It was while in London in 1926 that the Nicholsons had met Christopher Wood.  Their friendship grew, and in the spring of 1928 Wood visited the Nicholsons in Cumberland. Wood painted and drew outside side by side with Ben Nicholson, the two playing a game of reducing their drawings as much as possible. There’s a fine drawing by Wood in the exhibition, titled ‘Cumberland Landscape’, probably during that spring visit.  ‘Bankshead is the painter’s life’, said Wood. ‘I am on the verge of the real thing after what I saw and learned at Bankshead’.

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928

One of the best moments in the exhibition comes with the opportunity to compare the treatment of the same view by the three artists: Ben Nicholson’s 1930 (Cumberland Farm), Christopher Wood’s, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928 and Winifred’s Northrigg Hill, 1926. Of the three, I feel that it is Winifred’s widescreen panorama that is most perfectly realised, tracing the shapes made by drystone walls and ploughed furrows, the distant blue fells on the horizon, all beneath a turbulent sky.

Ben Nicholson’s later 1930 (Cumberland Farm), like the other two, is clearly painted from the same viewpoint.  All three have same subject, but exhibit different treatments – Ben’s reflecting the influence of Alfred Wallis, who he had met in St Ives in 1928.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cumberland Farm)

Banks Head was basic: it had no electricity until after the Second World War and Winifred had to get plumbing, heating and cooking equipment installed. Knowing that gives in extra frisson to her painting, Fire and Water, of the old black range that was always lit in the windswept house that was high up, overlooking a panorama of rolling farmland stretching to the distant northern edge of the Pennines.

Winifred Nicholson, Fire and Water, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Fire and Water, 1927

It was during these years that flowers – brought indoors and displayed in a vase or jar on a table or a windowsill with a hazy view of the outdoor scene beyond – becomes a familiar element of Winifred’s work.  They are more than just pretty pictures of posies, though.  In the Times, an anonymous reviewer  of an exhibition given by the three artists in 1927 commented on Winifred’s ‘escape from realism into a new reality’ which seems about right.  These paintings are not slavish representations but experiments in light and colour that ‘invest the visible world with an almost magical aura’ (Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson)

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1927

In parenthesis: Winifred Nicholson is often dismissed simply as a painter of flowers or a ‘woman’s’ painter (it was interesting to note how many of the paintings exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery were from a private collection; a sign, perhaps, of the disdain for her work by those who buy works for public collections? ) The worst example of this attitude that I’ve come across was from Brian Sewell who, in a Telegraph piece that I don’t think even merits a link, opined that her paintings are ‘very slight indeed… what I call women’s pictures. In fact only a woman could have painted them’. For myself, I’m with Alain de Botton who (writing about Monet’s lilies in last week’s Guardian) spoke of how many people of taste and sophistication regard ‘prettiness’ as a symptom of sentimentality, even stupidity:

The worry might be that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life, which include war, disease and political error and immorality. … But … for most of us, the greatest risk we face is not complacency; few of us are likely to forget the evils of existence. The real risk is that we are going to fall into fury, depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose all hope in the human project.

It is this kind of despair that art is well suited to correct and that explains the well-founded popular enthusiasm for prettiness. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach … these are the visual symbols of hope. Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.

Winifred herself wrote:

I like painting flowers – I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paint brush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower – and I think I know why this is so. Flowers mean different things to different people – to some they are trophies to decorate their dwellings (for this plastic flowers will do as well as real ones) – to some they are buttonholes for their conceit – to botanists they are species and tabulated categories – to bees of course they are honey – to me they are the secret of the cosmos.

This secret cannot be put into image, far less into the smallness of words – but I try to. Their silence says to me – ‘My rootlets are moving in the dark, in the wet, cold, damp mud – My leaflets are moving in the brightness of the sky – My flowerface has seen the darkness which cannot be seen, and the brightness that is too bright to see – has seen earth to sun and sun to earth.’

Art is the desire to resolve opposites – to find a path in the jungle of phenomena. […] Some artists find their ultimate opposites in the contrast of the circle against the square – but I wonder whether the measure of the rectangular environment and of human beings, are the true opposites.

The flower world thinks they are not. You never circumscribe within the prison of a square bed even the tamest of flowers. They struggle, they sprawl – and if curtailed, they invite the worst weeds to come and join in the fray with them. They know more geometry than Pythagoras – and all sunflowers practice mathematical law in the spiral arrangement of their seeds. For resolving the ultimate of the universe is not all that they can tell – listen, they will show how to turn light into rainbows.

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Window-Sill, Lugano 1923

Winifred Nicholson, Window-Sill, Lugano 1923

Window-Sill, Lugano 1923 is not in the exhibition, but is a painting from that period which clearly demonstrates her seriousness and her strengths.  It’s in the Tate collection, and this is what their caption says about the painting and about Winifred’s work:

Though the painting of flowers has been stereotyped as the preserve of women artists, Nicholson uses it here not as an expression of femininity, but as a pretext for experiments in technique. Like many progressive artists at this time she adopts a naïve or ‘primitive’ style in an attempt to unlearn traditional picture-making habits and generate a fresh vision of the subject. Nicholson innovatively combines the two genres of still life and landscape, aiming at personal expression through her use of space, shapes and colour

Flowers and landscapes were not Winifred’s only subjects.  She painted the people close to her as well – her family and country people, farm people.  The exhibition has two of these paintings – the tender portrait of Ben with their baby, Father and Son, and the large painting of The Warwick Family, made in 1926 and depicting the family who lived and worked the farmstead next door.

Winifred Nicholson, Father and Son, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Father and Son, 1927

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

Winifred’s influence on Christopher (Kit) Wood (at least in choice of subject) can be seen in Flowers, a painting he made in 1930.  The three artists had become close friends, and after Kit had stayed at Banks Head for a month in the spring of 1928 windowsills and flowers began to appear in his work. In Winifred’s writings (published in Unknown Colour) there’s a terrific journal entry in which she writes of Kit’s arrival at Banks Head:

He came in March.  His arrival was like a meteor.  The wild country delighted him.  The dark forests took on a mystery and magic as he looked on them, moved in spirit with the impetuosity of the brown river that runs, carving its course, through Coombe Crags.  We all three painted and thought of nothing else.  Inspiration ran high and flew backwards and forwards from one to the other.  Usually he painted from drawings or from memory, but here he painted some pictures from nature, carrying an enormous box of paints and easel over the rough fields and walking at his usual swift pace.  […]

He came up from the valley with the springing step of eternal youth.  He had been out all day with Ben along by the river in the green valley making schemes for pictures and drawings.  He came up the hill with his heavy painting gear and a great branch of palm over his shoulder.  He had climbed to the top of a tree to get it.  The pollen of the yellow catkins lay dusty on his coat.

Meanwhile, Ben was moving, slowly but surely, towards abstraction, as represented here by c.1925 (Jamaique).

Ben Nicholson, c.1925 (Jamaique)

Ben Nicholson, c.1925 (Jamaique)

Cornwall

In the summer of 1928 the Nicholsons holidayed at Pill Creek, near Feock in south Cornwall,  described by Winifred as ‘a sleeping beauty’s countryside of southern foliage, sheltered creeks and wide expanse of water’.

Christopher Wood, Pill Creek, Feock, Cornwall, 1928

Christopher Wood, Pill Creek, Feock, Cornwall, 1928

While at Feock Ben Nicholson and Wood made a day trip to St. Ives where they stumbled upon the old fisherman and painter Alfred Wallis.  They were so taken with his paintings that not long after the whole party moved to St. Ives.

Alfred Wallis was entirely self taught and depicted scenes from his memory: schooners in which he had crossed the Atlantic, mackerel luggers he had worked on, and images of St. Ives Bay and Mount’s Bay that lacked any perspective. He used old ship or household paint, and painted on old bits of odd-shaped cardboard. Each of the three painters responded to Wallis in their own way, but he had the most significant impact on Ben Nicholson who saw these paintings as experiences more real than life itself, and responded by making similar works of deceptive simplicity, such as 1930 ( Cornish Port).

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cornish Port)

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cornish Port)

Winifred wrote about Wallis with the same simplicity of expression as the old fisherman’s paintings:

Alfred Wallis  … is an old fisherman of eighty.  He paints.  Kit and Ben had seen his pictures stuck up over his wall as they were passing down the street one day.  They saw them through the open door.  They went in and spoke to him.  The pictures were of the sea and ships.  He paints them on any bits of cardboard.  They are painted with the imagination of a poet and the restraint of colour and sense of movement of a master.  His work is true naive and of the utmost sincerity.  He started painting a year after his wife died.  He lives in one room.  He is suspicious of all the neighbours who do not understand him.  He has a kind of mouth-organ wrapped up in a purple-spotted handkerchief.  He plays out of his head strange melodies which he improvises by the hour.  He used to be a rag-and-bone man.  he once had a shop and made money.  It was all stolen.  He distrusts people.  He loves ships with a passion.  All his painting is expressive as only great and simple painting is.

There, in a few crisp sentences, is just about all you need to know about Alfred Wallis.

Ben Nicholson kept in touch with Alfred Wallis, visiting when he could, exchanging letters, sending him money and materials and receiving parcels of paintings by post. When Alfred Wallis’s work was exhibited in London it was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, despite Ben Nicholson championing Wallis amongst his artistic friends.

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c 1928

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c 1928

Alfred Wallis, White Houses, Hales Down, near St Ives, c1930

Alfred Wallis, White Houses, Hales Down, near St Ives, c 1930

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Both Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood painted pictures entitled Porthmeor Beach in 1928, and both can be interpreted as homages to Alfred Wallis.  Ben’s 1928 (Porthmeor Beach No. 2, above) is in the exhibition, a sand-coloured painting with sand-scoured textures.  Ben has painted the view through an open window of the beach with a Wallis-style schooner afloat on the sea beyond.  Ben painted another view of Porthmeor beach that year (not in the exhibition), also with a Wallis-like ship riding the waves.  Both paintings draw heavily upon Wallis’s simple, direct painting style.

Christopher Wood’s Porthmeor Beach (below, also not in this exhibition) also exhibits the influence of Wallis.  It was painted shortly after Ben and Kit had met Wallis, and it views (fairly accurately in topographic terms) the Man’s Head promontory that embraces the beach to the west. In the foreground, a hunched figure strides along the coast path towards us –  it could well be Wallis himself, for this was his favourite walk.

On the far side of Porthmeor, the headland known as The Island is crowned by a tiny chapel.  Winifred made a painting of The Island in the same year (which is in the exhibition); it’s a great painting on which Winifred has left visible a network of pencil lines that trace arcs and ellipses from various points on the canvas, particularly the top of the church tower.

Christopher Wood, Porthmeor Beach, 1928

Christopher Wood, Porthmeor Beach, 1928

Ben Nicholson - Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1928

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach)

Diverging Paths

The Nicholsons and Kit had been joined on that Cornish holiday by Wood’s lover Frosca Munster, a Russian emigre that he had met in Paris, once described by Diaghilev’s secretary as having ‘a serene face that had the strange beauty of the models painted by Piero della Francesca’.  She had rechristened Wood ‘Kit of the woods’ because she felt he was so untameable.  There’s  a portrait of her by Wood in the last section of the exhibition, called The Blue Necklace.

Christopher Wood, The Blue Necklace, 1928

Christopher Wood, The Blue Necklace, 1928

The Nicholsons and Wood  shared no more painting trips after 1928. Wood continued to paint in intensive spells, notably in Brittany in 1929 and 1930, where he painted Le Phare, one work where the influence of Alfred Wallis is most evident.

Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

In the winter of 1929, Wood stayed on in St. Ives with Froska.  In a rented cottage on Porthmeor Beach, Wood was smoking five or six pipes of opium each evening.  By day he visited Wallis and studied the people of the town and their customs, noting his observations in a letter to Winifred:

When someone dies here, they burn the mattress, the clothes and even the bedstead of the defunct on the beach.  The male folk, these darkly dressed men, carry it all down on their shoulders and make a huge fire among the rocks and stand around with paraffin cans musing on the life of the dead person.  It is rather impressive, with the huge green waves like horses, bounding and pounding in on the sand.

That describes a typical Christopher Wood picture: the sea, darkly dressed fisherpeople (‘they look like pirates with big jack boots up to their thighs and skin hats with wings in them like Mercury’, he wrote to Winifred), drama, wildness and mystery.  Sebastian Faulks has written that Wood ‘was the only serious English painter between the two wars who continued to believe that a picture could deal with the lives of people.  There’s one such painting in this exhibition – The Fisherman’s Farewell.

The painting dates from that autumn spent in Cornwall with the Nicholsons. Set against a backdrop of St Ives harbour, a fisherman bids farewell to a woman and a child, his sun-tanned face partially obscured as he leans to kiss the child’s head. One group of men hauls a boat towards the sea, others are already crowded into a tiny vessel and heading towards the cluster of larger boats that await their crews. It’s a poignant scene of departure overlaid with an atmosphere of impending loss.

It was a form of personal farewell: the figures in the foreground are portraits of Ben and Winifred with their young son, Jake born a year earlier.

The Fisherman's Farewell 1928 by Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood, The Fisherman’s Farewell 1928

In December 1929, shortly before leaving Cornwall for London and then Paris, Wood wrote to Winifred Nicholson:

I seem to live on the edge of the world. But what a world it is, I love this place and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care … It will be hard to leave it.

On 21 August 1930, in Winifred’s words, Wood ‘went into the unknown’. Suffering the effects of opium withdrawal, he threw himself under a train at Salisbury Station at the age of 29.  Winifred wrote:

If there had been no night; if the earth had never turned her face away from her bright sun, we had never known that there were stars – countless millions of them in space so wide we cannot conceive of it.  Suns so many that all our glory is but pale in comparison.

Besides the awful greatness of the universe, its solitude, its silence, its power, the vast deep unknown, there is only one thing as awe-inspiring, and that is the soul of a man when it is inspired by a purpose that risks all to scale the high skies, to aspire to abstract beauty herself …

Wood had been addicted to opium for a good many years and some have suggested that this is was gives many of his works a dream-like quality:

His best paintings are radiant and faintly sinister. Fra Angelico and El Greco seem, for once to have met on common ground. There is an unclouded purity, at times a rapture, in his pictures, but there is also a thunderstorm somewhere in the neighbourhood. Sometimes it is the inky blue-black of the sea, sometimes a leaden sky, more often a series of sinister shapes that cannot be analysed, that set the mood’
– Eric Newton, Christopher Wood: His life and Work

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930

One of Kit Wood’s last paintings is here: the strange, surreal Zebra and Parachute. A zebra stands before a modernist building, identified as the Villa Savoye, near Paris, designed by Le Corbusier. The villa, begun in 1928, was completed after Wood’s death, but construction was well underway at the time Wood produced this painting in Paris.  The mysterious atmosphere of the image is reinforced by the sight of the parachute descending, a tiny figure dangling in the harness limp and lifeless.

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats, 1932-34

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats, 1932-34

The final group of paintings also includes what is, for me, the best of Alfred Wallis’s paintings, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats. The subject was a Wallis favourite, and he painted it many times. In this version he has concertina’d a broad area of sea and coastline into a compact composition in order to emphasise its key features – St.Ives harbour with mackerel boats beached at low tide, Porthminster Beach with its seine nets, Hayle Estuary, the long stretch of coastline beyond, and Godrevy Lighthouse across the bay.

In the materials used, too, the painting is pure Wallis.  He would make use of whatever scraps of board happened to be available, often cartons and old packing-cases given to him by the local grocer. Instead of disguising their origin Wallis would incorporate their irregularities into the design of his pictures, making a virtue of whatever shape, texture and colour they chanced to have. His colours were similarly restricted by what he could manage to lay his hands on – invariably ship’s paint, never artists’ colours, which he thoroughly despised. As he wrote to one of his few collectors in 1935: ‘I do not put Collers what do not Belong. I Think it spoils The pictures’.

Winifred Nicholson, Autumn Flowers on Mantlepiece, 1932

Winifred Nicholson, Autumn Flowers on Mantlepiece, 1932

By the early 1930s the Nicholson’s marriage was breaking down and they began to live apart (although they both stayed in close contact and visited each other regularly for the rest of their lives). In 1932 Winifred was living in Paris and while staying with her Ben made his first relief. A later one, from 1935, is displayed here, alongside a superb abstract from the same year, 1935 (Painting), consisting of blocks of black, grey, cream and sand-coloured paint dominated by a central pale blue circle.

Nicholson: 1935 (White Relief)

Ben Nicholson, 1935 (White Relief)

Although living separately, Ben and Winifred continued to keep up a lively correspondence until they were in their eighties.  In 1932 Winifred wrote to Ben from the Isle of Wight:

I like your idea of our new relationship – clear and true, in complete freedom and unexclusiveness, no sense of the divisions of people.  I see it clear in the high skies – I feel it clear in the subconscious spaces where all picture ideas, all vision, comes from.  How it works on earth I do not see.  But perhaps it need not come to earth any more than Kit’s need. …

The day is full of bright sunlight.  The white ship in the distance came straight out of Kit’s St. Ives picture – moving like magic and dazzling white – serene and cold …

In 1953 Winifred wrote:

There are several kinds of happiness, and there is one sort I have found.  It is the sort that is within oneself, enjoying fresh promise, and taking all the experiences of life that one has been through, so-called sad ones and so-called happy ones, to make up understanding that is further on than joy or sorrow.  I have been extremely lucky – I have had ten years of companionship with an ‘all-time’ painter, working in the medium of classical eternity and that has been better than a lifetime with any second-class person – isn’t it – I have found it so …

In 1967, again writing to Ben, Winifred makes a delightfully irascible observation about something which the poet Kathleen Raine had written in an introduction to the catalogue for an exhibition of her work:

I don’t at all mind your stating that you were married to me (if you want to) after all it’s a fact.  But Kathleen’s Mrs Nicholson is a piece of stupidity – who is Mrs Nicholson?  Does she really feel that a woman has no identity of her own?  She should study the new Swedish law in which, on marriage, women keep their own name, or take an entirely different name if they wish to – either different from their own or their husband’s.

On another occasion Winifred wrote to Ben:

I don’t want more, never have wanted and never will want to paint more real than actual life. I want life and painting to be the same so that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.

Winifred Nicholson, The Gate to the Isles, 1980

Winifred Nicholson, The Gate to the Isles, 1980 (not in exhibition)

See also

Looking at the View: ‘take the small voyage out to the horizon and back again’

Looking at the View: ‘take the small voyage out to the horizon and back again’

John Nash The Cornfield

Visiting Tate Britain last week we found that the painters and decorators were in and rooms closed – there’s a major re-hang going on that will be completed in May, with the promised result that we will be able to  follow the story of British Art chronologically from 1540 to present day.

I can see the advantages of that approach, but I tend to prefer presentations that surprise by bringing together works from different periods or schools.  And Tate Britain has actually got a display of that kind on show now – it’s called Looking at the View, and it presents paintings from the 17th century to the present alongside photographs and video, all in non-chronological pairings designed to demonstrate how different artists have approached ‘the view’ in similar ways.  This is how the Tate introduces the exhibition:

This exhibition is about looking. It brings together works which are amazingly similar even when made centuries apart, and reveals how subject matter, focus, framing and composition operate in a complex relationship between viewer and view. The representation of a landscape is not defined only by considerations of period or place. Different viewpoints place the spectator in a range of relationships with the landscape: inside or outside, near or far, high above or immersed in detail. Such views appear natural but are, in fact, highly structured according to artistic conventions that have changed little over the centuries.  All of them offer insights into the ways in which a viewer is engaged in the process of looking.

The works are all drawn from Tate’s collection.  Some of them key works while others, less well-known, are rarely exhibited. One example of the Tate’s juxtapositions is the pairing of Tracey Emin’s ‘Monument Valley‘, a photograph of her reading in a chair against an Arizona desert background, with Joseph Wright’s 1782 portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby: both feature figures in a landscape reading a book, though neither are, to me, especially interesting.  I did note that whereas Emin is reading a copy of her own book, Boothby is reading Rousseau.  So there you have cultural decline in one!

The main interest of this display didn’t derive from the concept underpinning it (which, after that initial, brief introduction, the Tate left to our own imaginings, offering no further guidance through panels or captions), but from having the chance to view some beautiful works, among them many rarely put on show. Overall, it added up to a diverse survey of British landscape artists, that avoided chocolate box clichés.

Perhaps the best-known picture in the display is ‘The Cornfield’, painted by John Nash in 1918 (top).  John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time.  John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the  golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.

John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:

Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,

and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
is orphaned
– not by shadows; not by light –

but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,

pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,

so everything, it seems,
is resurrected;
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,

but always,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:

the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,

the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.

Francis Cotes Paul Sandby 1761
Francis Cotes: Paul Sandby, 1761
Francis Cotes’ portrait of  Paul Sandby, painted in 1761, is an example of the romantic image of the artist that emerged in the late eighteenth century. Sensibility meant being emotionally sensitive to nature, and in keeping with that idea, the landscape painter Paul Sandby is shown, every inch the elegant, cultured and enlightened gentleman, sketching a view beyond the open window.
Annie Louisa Swynnerton Count Zouboff 1931
Annie Louisa Swynnerton: Count Zouboff, 1931

The rather louche Count Zouboff in this painting by Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933), first exhibited in 1931, is not engaged with the landscape behind him; rather, this seems to be in the tradition of aristocratic types being portrayed in front of landscapes which they either own or have had the good fortune to be visit. Swynnerton was born in Kersal, a suburb of Manchester, one of seven daughters of a solicitor.  She began painting to help support the family. Later she trained at the Manchester School of Art and in Paris. She married sculptor Joseph Swynnerton in 1883 and lived with him in Rome for much of her adult life. louche

Philip Wilson Steer The Bridge 1887
Philip Wilson Steer: The Bridge, 1887

Another less-often seen painting is Philip Wilson Steer’s Whistlerish ‘The Bridge’ (1887).  The painting was attacked by critics when it was first exhibited in 1887, and dismissed by one as ‘either a deliberate daub or so much mere midsummer madness’. Steer considered giving up painting after this savaging, but its atmospheric lighting and subdued colouring has something of the feel of the ‘dreamy, pensive mood’ of Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ (though they hadn’t fared any better with the critics).

A Machine for Living: Untitled 1999 by Dan Holdsworth
Dan Holdsworth: A Machine for Living, 1999

This is a photograph of the Bluewater shopping complex at night.  It is one of a series by Dan Holdsworth entitled A Machine for Living, 1999-2000. The photograph shows exits from the motorway leading to vast empty car parks. The shopping complex itself looms in the background of the image beneath a heavy sky.  Holdsworth used long exposures at night to exploit the available light sources, and this process has rendered the landscape in unnatural colours. The sky is a hazy red, as are trees in the immediate foreground, while the sparse foliage dotted around the car park is a sickly yellow. Electric lights in the car park give off an eerie, excessively bright glow. The scene is completely empty of people, and this barrenness, along with the saturated colours, conveys a sense of unease. Holdsworth has said, ‘I’m often quite interested in dislocating the image from the place. I’m not so interested in where it’s located. What I’m interested in is a psychological landscape.’

Bluewater was built on the site of a disused quarry near a major motorway junction in Kent. Dan Holdsworth’s photo makes it look like the vision of a future beautiful place, as conjured in Simon Armitage’s poem,  ‘A Vision’:

The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the  full-blown balsa-wood town
on  public display in the Civic Hall?
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,

blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.

And people like us at the bottle bank
next to the cycle path, or dog-walking
over  tended  strips of fuzzy-felt  grass,
or model drivers, motoring home in

electric cars. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.

I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.

Welsh Landscape with Roads 1936 by Graham Sutherland
Graham Sutherland: Welsh Landscape with Road, 1936

‘Welsh Landscape with Road’ (1936) by Graham Sutherland depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but – as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’.  Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.

Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna ?1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner: Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna,1828

I suppose the Tate couldn’t have left Turner out of this exhibition – though they have selected a less well-known oil painting, ‘Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna’, possibly painted in 1828 on his second visit to Rome. It’s a tonal study of the Campagna broiling in a heat haze that may have been observed from nature, though his Italian sketches were generally composed in the studio.

John Brett The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs 1871
John Brett: The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs, 1871

John Brett’s ‘The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs’, painted in 1871, reminded me a little bit of Kurt Jackson’s studies of sea surfaces off the coast of Cornwall. Brett’s view is probably from the cliffs above Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and was based on detailed notes on colour and meteorology that John Brett made as he sailed round the south-west coast in the summer of 1870. The focus of the painting is the effect of crepuscular rays of sunlight on the sea, which Brett had studied closely and aimed to reproduce accurately.

William Nicholson The Hill Above Harlech
William Nicholson: The Hill Above Harlech

Another seascape.  William Nicholson (father of Ben) lived at Harlech in North Wales towards the end of the First World War and after. This view is from high above Harlech Castle, and looks across Tremadoc Bay to the mountains on the Lleyn Peninsula.

When the  sea’s to  the  west
The  evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns
In the incandescent mantle of the air.

Once, fifteen,
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.

Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.

Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land  darkening  –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle.
– ‘Sea to the West’, Norman Nicholson

Interior of the Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield ?exhibited 1813 by John Hill circa 1780-1841
John Hill : Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield, 1813

I was really struck by this painting – ‘Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield’ exhibited around 1813 by John Hill. This was Hill’s first finished picture – he was entirely self taught.  What is interesting about this picture, apart from its details of a carpenter’s workshop in the early 19th century, is that window at the far end of the workshop.  These are men working in an idyllic, Eden-like setting, but they have work to do. At least for the time they are working, they are oblivious to the beauty beyond.

The Tate website adds these details:

The interior depicted is that of a small joinery shop, flagstoned and largely timber-built, with a view of the countryside seen through an open window at the back of the shop. It is at this vantage point that the master carpenter (distinguished from his assistants by his moleskin hat and dark jacket) is portrayed at work, planing timber. His two assistants are in shirt-sleeves; each wears the traditional carpenter’s cap made of stout white paper folded into a box-like shape (also worn by the Carpenter in Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice Through the Looking-Glass).

A Tate monograph on the painting that:

None of these details are picturesque props; all of them are painted from first hand knowledge of the carpenter’s trade. The three men at work in this interior are not posing for the artist. Each of them is absorbed in his work and in command of the task to which he is putting his skills’. … Each of the three men is evidently a fully-qualified carpenter, for each has beside him his carpenter’s tool box, usually elaborately constructed and inlaid, which he would have made during his apprenticeship. … The only unrealistic note is the axe lying unprotected on the flagstones in the foreground: no carpenter would leave an axe on the floor like that.

The Beanfield, Letchworth 1912 by Spencer Gore
Spencer Gore : The Beanfield, Letchworth, 1912

‘The Beanfield, Letchworth’, painted by Spencer Gore in 1912, uses flat and vivid colour to give form and distinctive angular patterns to the landscape. Gore developed this style during time spent in Letchworth Garden City from August to November 1912. Trees in full leaf and a golden yellow sky indicate high summer or early autumn; on the distant horizon, the puffing chimneys of the Arlesey brickworks are visible.

Gore was a member of the Camden Town Group, and he was staying at Harold Gilman’s home in Letchworth Garden City. This was a period when Gore felt the need for development in his art. A fellow member of the Camden Group wrote:
He needed change. He seems to have felt something of the same dissatisfaction with Impressionism that Cézanne felt; its lack of definition and solidity. The feeling was intrinsic; it was not a pressure from outside. … He began to simplify and to mass the colour schemes of his pictures, grouping the tones into hot and cold colour. There was a gain in strength, solidity, and pattern; there was some loss of atmosphere and sparkle. At Letchworth he made a desperate break. He began to analyse his colour tones very broadly, and to put them down in arbitrarily defined masses; his drawing became simpler, more massive, angular. It was a period of transition and the paintings of the time revealed the working of his mind in a very interesting way.
Julian Opie There Are Hills in the Distance 1996
Julian Opie: There Are Hills in the Distance, 1996

If you want work that is ‘simpler, more massive, angular’, then ‘There are hills in the distance’ (1996) by Julian Opie should suit. It is a large wall painting, the dimensions of which are determined by the space in which it is to be installed (here it was along two adjacent walls, across the corner of a room) . It depicts a simplified landscape composed of three shades of green, representing foreground fields or grassland, plus two of blue, representing the distant hills alluded to in the title.

Colour gradation in the greens and the blues corresponds to the notion of distance. Paler colours represent areas that are further away. These colours are painted onto the wall in sloping horizontal strips below a large area of light blue sky. All the colours are monotone. The painting is made using water-based acrylic paint applied with a roller for even application. Low-tack masking tape is applied to the wall at the edges of each area when painting. The work is not dependent on the artist’s presence for its execution. The painting is carried out by professional sign painters following his instructions, which consist of templates, measurements and a list detailing the order in which areas should be painted. These include the specifications that ‘the idea is not to decorate the room but to make a panorama or view’. I was reminded a little bit of Bridget Riley’s designs for the old Royal Liverpool Hospital.

Lisa Milroy Sky 1997
Lisa Milroy: Sky, 1997

I liked this lithograph by Lisa Milroy titled ‘Sky’.  She’s a Canadian painter who now lives and works in the UK. She is mainly known for painting everyday items (such as shoes or light bulbs) in the form of grids that look like pages from a catalogue.  I thought this work, which reminded me a little of Constable’s cloud studies, was far preferable.

LS Lowry Hillside in Wales 1962
LS Lowry: Hillside in Wales, 1962

In the 1960s Lowry made a number of visits to South Wales, discovering of the mining villages and renewing his interest in the industrial landscape as a subject for his paintings. In contrast to his views of Lancashire towns, the Welsh mining villages prompted pictures that combine a sense of urban life within a rural environment, the village here nestling in the side of the hill.  This picture was painted from notes and sketches made on the spot near Abertillery.

Lucian Freud Two Plants 1977-80
Lucian Freud: Two Plants, 1977-80

From the wide-angle view to the close-up: in the mid-1960s Freud made a series of paintings of botanical subjects. ‘Two Plants’ is almost photographic in its detail and precision. He began the painting in 1977 and it took three years to complete. Freud described it as ‘lots of little portraits of leaves’, adding ‘I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying’.

The Crossing Place of Road and River
Richard Long: The Crossing Place of Road and River. A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon,1977

Someone who walks long distances whilst looking at the view is Richard Long. The Crossing Place of Road and River, also known as A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon, consists of two elements. One is a black and white photograph of a rough track approaching and crossing over a narrow river, above the handwritten words ‘the crossing place of road and river’ (above). The other is a drawing consisting of two lines, one blue, one black, above the words ‘a walk of the same length as the River Avon / An 84 mile northward walk along the Foss Way Roman Road’ inscribed in red ink. ‘England 1977’ is written below in black. The blue line, with its forked end, describes the contours of the River Avon from mouth to source. The black line marks the trajectory of the Foss Way, the road built by the Romans along which Long walked over a period of several days. The two panels of The Crossing Place freeze Long’s walk in time through two different viewpoints: the overview provided by the drawing and the literal view provided by the camera.

Tristram Hillier La Route des Alpes 1937
Tristram Hillier: La Route des Alpes, 1937

Tristram Hillier studied at the Slade School of Art, London, in 1926, and later in Paris. He lived in the South of France until 1940, where this picture – ‘La Route des Alpes’ – was painted in 1937 when he was staying near Vence. The artist later wrote of the work:

Here I started to paint landscape again, not in my earlier manner en plein air, but attempting to construct my pictures from rough drawings which I would elaborate in the studio, in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters whose work I had recently had so much opportunity of studying.

William Coldstream On the Map 1937
William Coldstream: On the Map, 1937
William Coldstream’s ‘On the Map’ dates from 1937 and the great era of rambling.  However, the figures in this painting do not seem equipped for a hike; they are, in fact, fellow-artists Graham Bell (standing holding a map) and his friend Igor Anrep. They look out across the landscape with a ‘stare as long as sheep and cows’ perhaps:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
– ‘Leisure’, WH Davies

Winifred Nicholson Glimpse Upon Waking 1976
Winifred Nicholson: Glimpse Upon Waking, 1976

Standing in front of this painting by Winifred Nicholson I couldn’t help hearing those soaring lines of Guy Garvey’s:

Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right

‘Glimpse Upon Waking’ was painted in 1976 by Nicholson, who developed a very personal impressionistic style that concentrated on domestic subjects and landscapes, the two motifs often combined – as here – in a view out of a window that sometimes features flowers in a vase or a jug.

Winifred Nicholson married Ben Nicholson in 1920 and for a time they were both part of the artists’ colony in St Ives. The couple influenced each other’s work, with Ben admitting that he learnt a great deal about colour from Winifred. After her divorce from Ben in 1938, Winifred spent most of the rest of her long life (she died in 1981, aged 88) in Cumberland.

lifting your eyes
take the small voyage
out to the horizon
and back again
– Thomas Clark, ‘The Grey Fold’

From Waterloo Bridge

We left Tate Britain and strolled along the embankment, looking at the view.  In a steady drizzle which had lasted all day, the towers rising up from London’s changing skyline dissolved into a murky haze, and the river was slate grey.

go and glimpse the lovely inattentive water
discarding the gaze of many a bored street walker

where the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices
through tiny windows into tiny thoughts and authorities

and the soft beseeching tapping of typewriters

take hold of a breath-width instant, stare
at water which is already elsewhere
in a scrapwork of flashes and glittery flutters
and regular waves of apparently motionless motion

under the teetering structures of administration

where a million shut~away eyes glance once
restlessly at the river’s ruts and glints

count five, then wander swiftly
away over the stone wing-bone of the city
– ‘
Another Westminster Bridge’, Alice Oswald

From Waterloo Bridge 2

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

It was a study in contrasts as I made my way across the courtyard of Somerset House where London Fashion Week was being hosted, and fashion models in glitzy outfits and extraordinary hats posed for photographers with big cameras.  I was headed for Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, a small but brilliant exhibition at the Courtauld, in which the relationship between the two artists is recounted through just 18 works, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris early in 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later. Continue reading “Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel”

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)

See also