Ben Nicholson, still life painter, and great abstract artist, got his love of composition not from Picasso but from his father’s collection of kitchenware and colourful objects
Imagine having the energy, at the age of 83, to get divorced! Or perhaps Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) the abstract painter was the divorced one, by his then wife, the German photographer Felicitas Volger. They had been married twenty years. It was Nicholson’s third marriage. The second, perhaps the most famous, was to Barbara Hepworth, the great British sculptor and artist; the first was to fellow artist Winifred. He mingled with many of the great artists of his time, and studied at the Slade School of Art (fictionalized by Pat Barker in Life Class) with, among others, Paul Nash, the war artist. In 1933 he produced his first white relief, for which Nicholson is perhaps most well known. He was a contemporary and in dialogue with his work with the European masters such as Henri Matisse, George Braque and Pablo Picasso, Mondrian and Henry Moore.
But hanging in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria, are a number of Nicholson’s perhaps lesser known works, which speak to a lesser known sphere of influence: his family, and particularly, in 1936 (still life: composition), his father.
“[My interest in still life] didn’t come from Cubism,” says Nicholson, “as some people think, but from my father – not only from what he did as a painter, but from the very beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and goblets and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects which he collected.”
His father, William, as well as his mother and uncle, were all painters. The entire family, especially on his mother’s side, were artistic, and all the Nicholson children were to become artists or architects—except poor Anthony, who died on the Front during the First World War. Ben was exempted because of his asthma. He travelled to New York instead in 1917 for an operation on his tonsils. Ben was well educated, and well connected. He was a member of the Seven and Five, along with Hepworth and Henry Moore. But his brother’s life was not the only loss. His mother Mabel died when Ben was 24 in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and his brother Christopher in 1948, at the age of 44.
His father, William, had a fairly privileged upbringing. He was the son of a Newark MP, trained in arts by many of the leading teachers of the day, and even after eloping with Mabel and moving into a former pub, still received £150 a year from his father, to paint, which he did, as well as illustrate and write children’s books. It was William, Ben’s father, that brought Ben to his first popular commission, as Ben designed the cover for Barrie’s Peter Pan.
What is there in 1936 (still life: composition) of Ben’s father, William? What is there of their relationship, of the admiration and debt? It is a pretty picture, greys and ochres and white washes, squares and a touch of the cubist influence, a block of red, a circle of yellow, the cups, plates, jugs and saucers layered on top of each other, the realism collapsed into the abstract and yet the images still clear. It is a kitchen table, behind, a window, it is a room, a world, a universe.
In an earlier piece, also in the Abbot Hall Gallery, 1932 (crowned head: the queen), there is a greater sense of space, or of layers meant to be upon layer, such as wallpaper or rugs. It seems quietly comfortable hanging next to the collages of Kurt Schwitters.
Again there is the window of the room, in the background some trees along a hill, perhaps. The queen’s head, facing left, as if on a stamp, stamps also appearing in Schwitters’ pictures, collages of letters, beer mats, pieces of wood, newspaper, a playful use of forms and words and images. There is a quiet dialogue between (still life: composition) and (crowned head: the queen) in their positioning of the objects centrally to the canvas, framed in the same way by what feels like the walls of the house, the kitchen, the safe places where Ben perhaps grew up, moored into this central space by the holding grace of his familial influences, his mother, his uncle, his father. You couldn’t look at (still life: composition) and believe it to be a paean or devotion to a father.
But then wouldn’t paying attention to the inspiration which flowed from a father’s noble practice and modest fancy collections speak more than some great poem? That is: Ben looked at what his father gathered, looked likingly, and turned then into art. If a son is to paint the objects his father has brought into the home, and the painting is not only light-hearted but also comes at a point in the artist’s development, a swing of the pendulum, back to compositional work and away from (although never giving up upon) the abstract; and beyond this, when the son – Ben – says that, no, it was not the great master Picasso who interested him in still life, but from his own father, William – then there is love enough there.
William and Mabel gave Ben a good upbringing, a safe and secure life. There, you can see it in the frames of the work and the boundlessness that Ben felt safe to transgress in his abstract work. The life he led in Cornwall. And the vigour to leave a marriage that was not working at the age of 77, move back to England from Switzerland, to divorce at 83. To live to 88. To know his own way. The 1936 picture is related to earlier still lifes, from 1933-1935. To those who look at the picture, Nicholson has taken the abstraction of the forms to their absolute limits. The cup and wine glass have been reduced to their simplest forms, although still recognisable. The colour are separate but add depth.
Ben Nicholson, still life. To those who look at the picture and read what Nicholson says of his father, one sees more than this, doesn’t one? Isn’t there what the father has poured into the son? And what the son has taken to be held by the father?