Page 1

Jovan Nicholson is an independent art historian with a particular

Art and Life examines the artistic partnership of Ben Nicholson and

interest in modern British art. He has worked on various projects with

Winifred Nicholson in the 1920s and their friendship and collaboration

The Henry Moore Foundation, the Barbican Art Gallery, the Russian

with Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray.


Museum, St Petersburg, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow and the British Council, organising exhibitions between Russia and Britain. He has been an adviser on a number of exhibitions, books and other publications about Winifred Nicholson and is an acknowledged expert on her work. He is a grandson of Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Sebastiano Barassi is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at The Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green. From 2001–12 he was Curator of Collections at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, and prior to that he worked at the Courtauld Institute Gallery in London. He has written extensively about early-twentieth-century British art.

Inspired by each other, the Nicholsons experimented furiously and often painted the same subject, one as a colourist the other more interested in form. Winifred wrote of her time with Ben, ‘All artists are unique and can only unite as complementaries not as similarities’. In the principal essay Jovan Nicholson explores the way ideas flowed between the Nicholsons and Christopher Wood when they painted side by side in Cumberland and Cornwall, with particular emphasis on their meeting with Alfred Wallis in St Ives in 1928. Sebastiano Barassi focuses on the Nicholsons’ visits to Paris, Italy and Switzerland in the early 1920s, while the potter Julian Stair examines the importance of William Staite Murray, one of the most successful potters at that time. All three essays draw on new research based on previously unpublished letters, photographs and other material. All the works are illustrated in full colour, each with

the last thirty years and has worked in over twenty public collections

comments relating to the work by the artists and their critics. The majority


Julian Stair is a potter and writer. He has exhibited internationally over including the Victoria and Albert Museum, American Museum of Art and Design and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Netherlands. He completed his PhD at the Royal College of Art in 2002 and has published extensively.

Jovan Nicholson

Philip Wilson Publishers an imprint of I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd

ISBN 978-1-78130-018-3

6 Salem Road London W2 4BU

Art and Life jkt 1928 Cornwall 34 PB.indd 1

9 781781 300183

of the items come from private collections, and many are previously unseen. Art and Life provides unique and personal insights into these innovative and important artists.


ART AND LIFE 1920–1931

Front cover: Ben Nicholson c. 1930 (Cornish port) Oil on card 21.5 x 35 cm Kettle’s Yard Back cover: Winifred Nicholson Bankshead Flowers in an Alabaster Jar (detail) c. 1928 Oil on canvas 56 x 45 cm Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

23/8/13 11:19:25


BEN NICHOLSON WINIFRED NICHOLSON C H R I S TO P H E R W O O D A L F R E D WA L L I S WILLIAM STAITE MURRAY ART AND LIFE 1920–1931 J OVA N N I C H O L S O N with essa y s by S ebastiano B arassi an d J ulian S tair

C ontents

Supported by

The Elizabeth Cayzer Charitable Trust FRIENDS

Published on occasion of the exhibition Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray, 1920–1931 This exhibition is a collaboration between Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, and Leeds Art Gallery. Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) 18 October 2013 – 12 January 2014 Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge 15 February – 11 May 2014 Dulwich Picture Gallery 4 June – 21 September 2014

Directors’ Foreword


Sebastiano Barassi


Julian Stair

A rt and L ife

Jovan Nicholson



Distributed in the United States and Canada exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan 175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010 ISBN Hardback: 978-1-78130-017-6 ISBN Softcover: 978-1-78130-018-3

Printed and bound in Spain by Grafo S.A.

Factive P lasticity : the A bstract P ottery of W illiam S taite M urray

Published by Philip Wilson Publishers an imprint of I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd 6 Salem Road London W2 4BU

Designed by Caroline and Roger Hillier, The Old Chapel Graphic Design,


© Dulwich Picture Gallery 2013 Text © the authors 2013

The right of Jovan Nicholson, Sebastiano Barassi and Julian Stair to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by the authors in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Author’s Acknowledgements

T he A llure of the S outh : the N icholsons in I taly and S wit z erland , 1 9 2 0 – 2 3

This exhibition tour has been made possible for all venues by the provision of insurance through the Government Indemnity Scheme. The co-organisers would like to thank HM Government for providing Government Indemnity and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England for arranging the indemnity.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior permission of the publishers.

Frontispiece: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Westmorland, early 1920s, Tate Archive pp. 50–51: Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria (detail), 1921, oil on canvas, 51× 59 cm, Private Family Collection pp. 68–69: Winifred Nicholson, Cumberland Landscape (detail), c. 1926, oil on canvas, 50.8 × 61cm, Private Collection pp. 112–13: Winifred Nicholson, Boat on a Stormy Sea (detail), 1928, oil on canvas, 55 × 80 cm, Private Collection pp. 148–49: Christopher Wood, Le Phare (detail), 1929, oil on board, 53.5 × 79 cm, Kettle’s Yard


L u g ano and London 50

C umberland 68

C ornwall : F eoc k and S t I ves 112

D I V E R G I N G P AT H S 148

Chronology 184

References 188

Index 189

Credits 192

T he A llure of the S outh : the N icholsons in I taly and S wit z erland , 1920– 23 S ebastiano B arassi

Both Winifred Roberts and Ben Nicholson grew up in environ-

her enjoyment of loosely and generously applied colour and the

ments which nurtured art appreciation and gave them access to

constraints of the traditional techniques she was taught. Typical

a wide range of artworks, artists and like-minded spirits. Winifred

of her style at this time is the watercolour Lincoln Cathedral (Prior

was born in Oxford in 1893. Her father, Charles Roberts, was a high-

Wimbush’s Tomb), which she exhibited at the 1914 Royal Academy

ranking politician; elected MP for Lincoln, and later for Derby, he

Summer Exhibition in London.1

served in Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal government as Under-

One of Winifred’s most formative early experiences was a

Secretary of State for India and Comptroller of the Household.

visit in 1919–20 to India, Sri Lanka and Burma with her father

Her mother, Lady Cecilia Howard, was the daughter of George

and sister Christina. In later years she acknowledged this trip

Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, who had combined a political career as

as the moment her sense of light and colour truly came to life,

Liberal MP with significant achievements as an artist and supporter

and when she realised that watercolour, with its immediacy and

of the arts. The son of Mary Parke, an amateur watercolourist

speed of execution, was her favourite medium. While delighting

who had studied under Peter de Wint, he had been a founding

in the exotic landscapes and atmosphere, on the Subcontinent

member of the Etruscan school of painting, patronised the Pre-

Winifred also had her first unmediated encounter with non-

Raphaelite Brotherhood and served for thirty years as a Trustee of

Western art, finding the use of colour in Indian miniatures

the National Gallery in London. Lady Cecilia was a liberal activist

especially inspiring. The exposure to new cultures and artistic

and a gifted amateur painter herself. Through her maternal family

traditions also gave Winifred valuable insights into the role her

Winifred had access to the collections housed at Castle Howard, which had been gathered over the previous three centuries and included paintings by Titian, Annibale Carracci, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. She often painted with her grandfather, and when he died in 1911 she inherited his paint box. Up to that point Winifred’s education had been typical for a girl of her class, and her family had encouraged her to take up painting. In 1912 she enrolled at the recently established Byam Shaw School of Art in London. Named after one of its founders, the history painter John Byam Shaw, the school promoted a fairly conventional approach, focussing on painting and life drawing. Although this training gave Winifred a solid technical grounding, early on she began to experience a tension between Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula (detail), c. 1922–23



Fig. 1 Winifred Nicholson, Indian Sketchbook, 1919–20, watercolour on paper, 23 x 30.5 cm, Private Collection


fascination with pictorial light could play in infusing spiritual

engaged to Ben. It was at this point that, perhaps seeking a clear

have vastly … overrated reputations.’4 Winifred later recalled

qualities into her work.

break from the past, Ben fully embraced more recent art, primarily

that, when they visited the Uffizi in Florence, the only work that

French but also, for a brief period, British – in particular Vorticism.

impressed them was a small Tudor portrait.5

Ben Nicholson’s family was perhaps not as eminent as Winifred’s, but it shared with hers a great appreciation of the

With both of them engaged in artistic experimentation and

While this bravado is understandable in young artists intent

arts and links with a remarkable circle of artists. Ben was born

at the start of their independent lives, Ben and Winifred found in

on rejecting academicism and historical tradition, there is

in 1894 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, to William Nicholson and

each other an accomplice and like-minded partner with whom

evidence that both Ben and Winifred were actually quite taken

Mabel Pryde. William, the youngest son of an industrialist and

to share their respective attempts to distance themselves from

with some of the art they saw in Italy. Three scrapbooks compiled

Conservative MP for Newark, was then at the beginning of a

the tradition within which they had grown up. They first met

by Ben around this time show that alongside more recent artists

career which would see him become one of Britain’s best known

in the summer of 1920 at Boars Hill, near Oxford. Soon after,

such as Picasso, Cézanne, Braque, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Manet,

still life and portrait painters. In 1888–89 he had attended Hubert

Winifred invited Ben to join her on a family holiday to Devon and

Matisse, Arp and Miró, he collected reproductions of paintings

von Herkomer’s art school at Bushey, where he met his future

Cornwall, during which they drew and painted side by side on a

by Benozzo Gozzoli, Giotto, Alesso Baldovinetti, Domenico

wife Mabel, who came from a family with a long tradition of

few occasions. A drawing by Ben and a watercolour by Winifred

Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, Fra Bartolomeo, Tintoretto and

artists. Two years later he went to Paris to study at the Académie

of the same view near Tippacott show how already at this

Paolo Uccello, as well as Goya, El Greco and Deruet.6 One of the

Julian, but after only six months he returned to England and

stage they had quite defined and different artistic personalities.

most telling inclusions is Piero della Francesca’s Double Portrait

married Mabel. At the time of Ben’s birth William worked as an

Winifred’s emphasis is strongly on colour, with a palette and

of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino of 1465–72. Typically for Piero,

illustrator and printmaker with his brother-in-law James Pryde,

composition reminiscent of Cézanne and the Fauves. Ben opted

the relationship between figure and landscape is very carefully

in a partnership known as the Beggarstaff Brothers. From early

for monochromatic line drawing, with a use of gentle perspectival

explored, with certain visual ambiguities, such as the formal

on the Nicholsons had a rich social life and moved in the same

distortion borrowed from recent French art or, possibly, from pre-

continuity of Battista Sforza’s jewels with the lines of fortifications

circles as Walter Sickert, William Orpen, William Rothenstein,

Renaissance Italian painters. The difference is emphasised by the

and hills in the background, echoing the compression of

Fig. 2 Ben Nicholson, 1917 (portrait of Edie), oil on canvas, Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust

choice of medium: more painterly watercolour for Winifred, a

different planes of the picture in paintings by Ben and Winifred

draughtsman’s pencil for Ben (pages 52 and 53).

from around this time. This is in fact one of several works in the

On 5 November 1920 Winifred and Ben were married at

scrapbooks to focus on the relationship between figures in the

to a severe form of asthma, in 1917 he went to New York for a

St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. For their honeymoon they

foreground and landscape in the background. As if to emphasise

From an early age Ben had to adjust to a lifestyle which

tonsillectomy, later visiting Chicago and Pasadena. Following the

travelled to Southern Europe. Their first destination was Italy,

this point, the double portrait is split over two pages, with each

required frequent travel and changes of circumstances, some

deaths of his brother Antony in action and his mother Mabel in the

where they visited Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Amalfi, Pisa,

half juxtaposed to photographs of landscape.

quite unsettling. Having visited France on family holidays in his

influenza pandemic, he returned to England in September 1918.

Portofino, Rapallo and Genoa. With typical youthful exuberance,

Many of the artists featured in the scrapbooks had for some

early childhood, aged nine he was sent to a boarding school in

During his travels Ben had some time to paint, and occasionally

in his accounts to friends and family Ben was rather dismissive

time been the subject of renewed attention by critics seeking

Norfolk. At the age of sixteen, in the autumn of 1910, he enrolled

he mailed a work to his father for comment; William invariably

of the art he and Winfred saw in Italy: ‘Most of the “show” pieces

alternative historical and cultural models to regenerate what they

at the Slade School of Art in London, which he left after just over

dismissed his efforts as technically inadequate. Much has been

we’ve seen – palaces, pictures & such like – are disappointing …

considered an exhausted artistic tradition. In Britain one of the most

one year; he had found its teaching, focussed on history painting

written about the fact that Ben’s early paintings appear to be driven

It is astonishing how few really 1 class A1 painters there have

fervent champions of the so-called ‘primitives’, a loose term used

and drawing from life and the antique, too formal. However, this

by a desire to compete with his father, with whom at times he had

been. And people like Tintoretto, Fra Angelico & Michel Angelo

to describe artists as disparate as African tribal sculptors and pre-

experience gave Ben contacts that were to play an important

a fraught relationship. The few surviving works from this period

part later in his life: he befriended fellow students Paul Nash and

suggest that Ben was then a fairly conservative painter, working in a

Christopher Nevinson, and met the young lecturer of Appreciation

style quite close to William’s. He painted mostly rather conventional

of Old Masters, Roger Fry, who was at the time working on one of

still lifes, although from 1917 he began to show an interest in

the most influential exhibitions in the history of twentieth-century

more current trends, in particular in portraiture and landscape. As

British art, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Probably because

Norbert Lynton pointed out, these early works share an austerity

of his young age, Ben did not make much of these contacts, but

reminiscent of the sombre mood of Mabel’s paintings. Ben later

being an art student he must have at least realised the significance

described them as ‘slick and “Vermeer”.’3

Rudyard Kipling and Edwin Lutyens. Mabel was a talented painter herself, mostly of portraits, but the growing pressures of family life meant that she was forced to treat art as little more than a hobby.


of some of the ideas and debates around him.



Renaissance Italian painters, was Roger Fry. Highly respected for his Fig. 3 Pages from Ben Nicholson’s scrapbook, early 1920s, Private Collection

Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910–12, in 1920 Fry published

Ben’s definitive rejection of Edwardian glossy naturalism came

After leaving the Slade, Ben spent the following three years

around 1919–20. This shift coincided with a period of painful

studying languages in France (Tours), Italy (Milan) and Portugal

personal crisis, which culminated in October 1919 with William’s

(Madeira). Having been exempted from military service due

marriage to Edie Stuart-Wortley, who a year earlier had been

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a seminal work for the study of ‘primitivism’, Vision and Design. The

De Chirico, Savinio, Carrà and Morandi, for example, rejected the

book is a collection of essays written over the previous twenty years

pre-war Futurist glorification of modernity and the machine in

in which Fry analyses the work of different artists through his theory

favour of a return to the past glories of Italian art. These artists

of significant form, with the aim of encouraging the development

referenced styles and subjects from Classical antiquity, the Middle

of a non-referential art that does ‘not seek to imitate form, but to

Ages and the Renaissance, with a strong emphasis on nostalgia,


create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.’

timelessness and theatricality – ideas they shared with Picasso’s

These ideas resonated in particular with the younger generation of

post-war work, among others. In a similar vein, in 1921 a group of

artists who, like Winifred and Ben, wanted to develop new idioms

Milan-based artists gave themselves the name Novecento Italiano

and no longer regarded the accuracy of representation as a priority.

to suggest a revival of the ages of hegemony of Italian culture, the

The Nicholsons were certainly aware of Fry’s writings, and tellingly

Quattrocento and Cinquecento. Now, however, their revisitation

many of the artists who appear in the scrapbooks also feature

of the past was driven by a strongly politicised agenda, and

in Vision and Design: the Post-Impressionists, of course, but also

the group eventually became an instrument of propaganda for

Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello and El Greco. Winifred

Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.12


and Ben’s correspondence from this time confirms that they were

Although Winifred and Ben were not too impressed with

eagerly studying artists and art forms from different periods and

contemporary Italian art, exposure to it did contribute to the

parts of the world.9

development of their critical sense, in particular with regard to

Following their tour of Italy, in December 1920 the Nicholsons

the notion of incorporating into modern work visual sources

rented (and later bought, with the help of Winifred’s father) a house

from a historical tradition. In this respect Milan also offered

above Lake Lugano in Switzerland. Villa Capriccio at Castagnola is

important collections of Old Master paintings, most notably the

just a few miles from the Italian border and set in the magnificent

Pinacoteca di Brera, whose displays include works such as Piero

landscapes at the foot of the Alps, in an area which Ben had known

della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece (1472–74) and Giovanni

and loved since his youth. For the next three years this became

Bellini’s Pietà (1460), which are likely to have appealed to the

the couple’s base on the Continent – in Winifred’s words, their



on his photos & is fairly moderate 7th rate. But they (bar

We have been painting in the snow lately, which is fun.

On the way from and back to Britain (they spent the summer

select few) have all lost the pt of painting & are ‘modern’

We have done more painting, since we have been here,

months between London and Cumberland), Ben and Winifred

dated, local. It is all froth. And certainly lack one of the

than we have ever done before. Ben has done 14 oils and

The country is good to paint, austere mountains and

often stopped in Paris, where they could see in the flesh, and

main fundamentals which is SINCERITY.

some drawings. One or two of them have got some funny

patterned vineyards, terraced down the hillside with

crucially in colour, works by Picasso, Rousseau, Derain, Modigliani,

knobbly willow trees and funny fig trees and springing

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse. This gave them much

With the benefit of hindsight and more maturity, Winifred

do absolutely nothing but paint all day, eat supper and

fruit trees. Our house has 2 studios. The garden will have a

food for thought and visual material to experiment with, even

recognised the importance of these visits to Paris. The city was

tea at 6.30 wash brushes and prepare canvases, go to bed

lot of peaches and cherries in June and July … There are

though Ben was again quite disparaging of what they saw:

‘electric with renovation – at every turn there was a genius and

and dream painting. Sometimes we go for a walk to look

transformation. Its creative energy was not to be believed, so

for new painty things.18

‘planning place’. This is how she described it:

enough rooms furnished to accommodate (!) 5 persons. 2


Fig. 4 Ben Nicholson, 1922 (bread), oil on canvas, 68.5 x 75.6 cm, Tate, London 2013


new things in them, leading to new developments. We

in a double bed and one servant. 2 sitting rooms, kitchen,

Paris is choc a block full of

we always went back to Villa Capriccio and brooded our ideas.’15


2nd rate

Besides, it was not just contemporary art that made an impact on

Given their relatively young age, it is not surprising that for Ben



the Nicholsons: they also visited several of the city’s museums,

and Winifred these were times of ‘fast and furious experiment’.19

The Nicholsons spent extended periods at Castagnola in



with Ben singling out Paolo Uccello as ‘probably the best of the

Their main source of inspiration was recent French art, though

winter, painting indoors and outdoors, taking trips to Como and



lot’ in the Louvre.

it took them, Ben in particular, a while to warm to Cubism.

Milan and going on long walks in search of inspiration. On their



Back in Switzerland, the exposure to such a broad range

Quite predictably, Cézanne and Picasso were two of the biggest

visits to Milan they encountered work which was stylistically quite



of new ideas and work, combined with the immersion in the

influences, and perhaps more surprisingly both Winifred and Ben

similar to contemporary Parisian art – still the most advanced and

8th “

beautiful landscapes of the Alps and the strong light of the South,

admired Derain’s post-Fauve still lifes, a few of which appear in

influential of the period – but had rather different agendas. Like

& 198 rate modern work … Modigliani is good example

brought about remarkable creative spells. Letters to friends and

the scrapbooks.20 Evidence can be found in a work like Ben’s 1922

their French counterparts, several Italian artists of the second

of No. 2.

family made frequent references to the intensity of their activity.

(bread) (fig. 4), which fuses elements borrowed from Derain and

half of the 1910s and early 1920s responded to the ‘call to

Derain, Picasso, Matisse have had the impertinence to

Ben: ‘O Lord, have we worked – yes we have. Any quantity + any

Bonnard with a Cézanne-inspired composition of objects on a

order’ that followed the First World War. The Pittura Metafisica of

contribute a no. of No. 1’s. Dufy in original is not a patch

quality.’17 And Winifred:

sloping tabletop. Typically for this time, the painting displays a



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Fig. 5 Ben Nicholson, 1923 (Castagnola), oil on board, 56 x 69 cm, National Galleries of Scotland

the most successful assimilation and synthesis of this wide range of ideas and styles. The composition, based on two slightly off-

Fig. 6 Winifred Nicholson, Castagnola, c. 1923, oil on board, 61 x 76 cm, Private Collection

of 1922–23 and belong in a series she described as ‘sunlight in white paper.’21 The pot of flowers wrapped in tissue paper and

centre trees and a bright red house, is reminiscent of Cézanne’s very deliberate technical rawness and restrained use of colour,

landscapes. The focus on the red house is emphasised by the

They painted numerous landscapes and still lifes set against

set on a windowsill was the ideal format to bring together some

symptomatic of Ben’s desire to abandon the sophistication of

otherwise restrained palette, which appears influenced by the

the local vistas, often bringing the two together through the

of Winifred’s favourite themes: the study of luscious colour, the

earlier art.

delicate use of colour and intense light of Piero della Francesca’s

compositional device of the open window. Continuing the

exploration of the relationship between interior and exterior,

Another Parisian influence was Henri Rousseau and his

altarpieces. Here, as in other works from the period, we see

practice started during their first trip to Western England, in the

foreground and background, still life and landscape, and through

much admired formal simplification and directness, which both

Ben’s emerging interest in the materiality of the medium and

Ticino the Nicholsons often depicted the same view. As with

these the layering and breaking down of the image. Winifred

Nicholsons tried to combine with a Fauve-inspired use of bold,

the canvas; pencil lines scar deeply the thin paint layer, and

the Tippacott works, the comparison of two paintings made

adopted in these paintings a similar principle to Ben’s 1921–c. 1923

concentrated colours, for example in Ben’s c. 1921 (pink house

the primed canvas is visible in places. This fascination with the

at Castagnola in 1923 offers useful insights into the two artists’

(Cortivallo, Lugano): the areas of intense colour of the flowers

in the snow) and Winifred’s Castagnola (Red Earth) (see page 59)

unfinished may be a further reference to Cézanne, and it hints

ongoing conversations and shared interests, but it also points to

are the compositional focus not only because of their central

of c. 1923. These paintings suggest a growing interest in Fry’s

at Ben’s early concentration on the visual and physical layering

emerging stylistic differences.

position, but also because they are surrounded by areas of colder

theories, both for their focus on significant form and for their

of the image, which remained important throughout his career.

subtle references to the Italian ‘primitives’. Ben’s 1921–c. 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) (page 55) is arguably


and Primula (see page 54), which she painted during the winter

Winifred arguably found an individual style before Ben, who

tones – the intense white of the wrapping paper, the blues and

In terms of subject matter, their own accounts suggest

effectively carried on experimenting until the early 1930s. Among

greys of the wintry Alpine landscape. In Cyclamen and Primula the

that the Alps themselves were a great source of inspiration.

her most accomplished works are Mughetti (fig. 7) and Cyclamen

points of the paper serve as visual rhymes with the mountains,

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This first experience of life and travel abroad was a formative one for both Winifred and Ben, but it was short lived. The high running costs of Villa Capriccio, and the desire to be closer to their families and on a livelier art scene eventually drove the couple back to Britain. It is also likely that the rise to power of Fascism in Italy and the ongoing unrest in the Balkans influenced their decision, if anything because of the restrictions these put on their ability to travel around Southern Europe more widely. Yet for all its brevity this turned out to be a very important period in the personal and creative development of both artists. As Winifred noted, this was the time when ‘Ben’s sense of the balance of space and the rhythm of forms in space evolved in the free space of mountain and sky – my sense of rainbow was given to me by the golden light of the sun.’27

Fig. 7 Winifred Nicholson, Mughetti, c. 1921–22, oil on board, 53.3 x 56.5 cm, Private Collection


establishing a connection between near and far which echoes

Because Ben destroyed almost all of his work from this period,

works such as the Derain in Ben’s scrapbook and, more broadly,

it is not easy to make a detailed assessment of his interaction and

Cubist and Fauve still lifes. The almost sculptural faceting of the

exchanges with Winifred.24 However, the very fact that he either

wrapping paper in Mughetti suggests that Winifred was at this

destroyed or painted over so many of his early paintings, whereas

time studying the idiom of analytical Cubism.

Winifred retrospectively looked at hers as some of the most

It has been observed that the simplicity and limited range

accomplished of her career, suggests that at this point she was a

of their subjects, and the abandonment of established ideas of

more advanced artist, and perhaps the leading half in the couple’s

quality and finish were the result of the Nicholsons’ desire to adopt

experiments.25 Her assessment of their own work and of that by

a more modest lifestyle.22 If we interpret this as the consequence

other artists often seems more balanced than Ben’s youthfully

of their aspiration to move away from their respective artistic and

exuberant views. The artistic output itself does suggest that

familial traditions, it is worth adding that while their experiments

Winifred found quite quickly a style she was satisfied with and

with different painting styles were somewhat typical of young

stuck with it for the rest of her career with little deviation, whereas

artists in search of an individual idiom, their choice of subjects

Ben continued to experiment furiously through the 1920s and,

was often much more personal. Ben, for example, challenged

in a sense, until the end of his life. It is possible that Winifred’s

the tradition he was reacting against on its favourite grounds,

assuredness allowed Ben to feel comfortable wandering off

concentrating on the themes of landscape and still life for which

in many different directions. And, as he later acknowledged,

his father was famous. On the other hand Winifred, who was

she played an important part in the development of his

animated by a very different sensitivity, found flowers the perfect

understanding of colour.26 Conversely, Winifred’s art appears to

subject to combine her interest in colour with the aspiration to

have benefited greatly from Ben’s sense of adventure, restlessness

give a spiritual dimension to her art.23

and unstoppable desire to see and try new things.

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notes 1 Reproduced in Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2009, p. 38. 2 The exhibition opened on 5 November 1910 at the Grafton Gallery in London. 3 Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press, London, 1993, p. 19. 4 Ben Nicholson to Wilfrid Roberts, 1 December 1920, quoted in Jeremy Lewison (ed.), Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p. 16. 5 Winifred Nicholson, ‘Moments of Light’, in Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, Faber & Faber, London, 1987, p. 33. 6 Two scrapbooks are at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, cat. nos. BN 52 and BN 53. BN 52 is dated ‘Castagnola 1922’, BN 53 ‘Castagnola 1921’ (but it includes works from as late as 1932). The third scrapbook, undated but also from the early 1920s, is in a private collection. In addition to reproductions of artwork (among which are Winifred’s Mughetti and Cyclamen and Primula), the scrapbooks include several photographic portraits of artists and composers (Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Massine), images of tennis players and family snapshots. 7 Roger Fry, Vision and Design, Chatto & Windus, London, 1920, p.157. 8 Although the Nicholsons acquired a copy of Vision and Design in 1921 or 1922, it is likely that they were by then already familiar with Fry’s ideas, as they had been widely discussed in British art circles for over a decade. 9 In their letters to E. J. Hooper from 1921–23 (Tate Archive, London) Ben and Winifred often mentioned books they were reading. Subjects include Cubism, Picasso, Braque, Derain, Cézanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Daumier, Rodin, El Greco, Scythian art, African tribal art, Nevinson, Epstein, Vorticism and Massine’s ballet La boutique fantasque. 10 Writing more than forty years later, Ben described how he had developed a love for the wintry Swiss landscape early in his life: ‘Deep dark brown mountains snow capped, & in the evening a miraculous, light pale-blue sky & darker blue lake below & a light mist between & small lit up clouds on the horizon & winter trees against all this. In fact this is the real Ticino for me & not the summer. I still remember vividly

the impact of looking out of the window at this landscape 2 AM (1913 — — —) with a full winter moon.’ Ben Nicholson to Herbert Read, 7 February 1964, Read Archive, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Victoria BC, Canada. 11 Winifred Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, Easter Monday 1921, Tate Archive, London. Winifred described in detail life at Villa Capriccio in the notes ‘Moments of Light’, in Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, Faber & Faber, London, 1987, pp. 33–38. 12 Ben was especially critical of the contemporary art he saw in Milan, possibly because of the political overtones. In a letter to Lady Cecilia Roberts, written around 1923 and quoted in Jeremy Lewison (ed.), Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p. 20, he refers to Italian artists as ‘experimenters experimenting without progress in the same old way.’ 13 Echoes of Bellini’s positioning of the hand of Christ over the marble slab in the foreground – which creates the illusion of the figure entering the space of the viewer – can be found in Ben’s c. 1924 (Balearic Isles), Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. 14 Ben Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, 28 April [1922], Tate Archive, London. 15 Winifred Nicholson, ‘Moments of Light’, in Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, Faber & Faber, London, 1987, p. 36. 16 Ben Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, 25 January 1922, Tate Archive, London. 17 Ben Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, 3 April [1923], Tate Archive, London. 18 Winifred Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, c. 25 January 1922, Tate Archive, London. 19 Ben Nicholson to John Summerson, 4 January [1944], Tate Archive, London. 20 One in particular, Still Life in Front of the Window, 1912–13 (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; reproduction in scrapbook BN 52, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge), must have appealed for its theme of still life on the windowsill and concentration on the relationship between internal and external space. 21 Winifred Nicholson to E. J. Hooper, 3 April 1923, Tate Archive, London. 22 Chris Stephens, ‘Beginnings’, in Chris Stephens (ed.), A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England, Tate Publishing, London, 2008, p. 16. 23 Ben explained that his interest in still life did not come from Cubism but from his father. See ‘Ben Nicholson in Conversation with Vera and John Russell’, The Sunday Times, 28 April 1963, reprinted in this volume, p. 65. For Winifred’s interest in flowers, see Winifred Nicholson, ‘The Flower’s Response’, in Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour: Paintings, Letters, Writings, by Winifred Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London, 1987, p. 216, reprinted in this volume p. 106. 24 Writing in 1944, Ben said that ‘only a fraction’ of his work from this period survived. Ben Nicholson to John Summerson, 4 January [1944], Tate Archive, London. 25 Of her works of 1922–23 Winifred wrote: ‘I have often wished for another painting spell like that, but never had one.’ Winifred Nicholson, ‘Moments of Light’, in Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, Faber & Faber, London, 1987, p. 37. 26 Ben Nicholson cited by Kathleen Raine, in ibid., p. 201. 27 Winifred Nicholson, ‘Moments of Light’, in ibid., p. 36.

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Ben Nicholson c. 1930 (Cornish port) Oil on card 21.5 x 35 cm Kettle’s Yard

Dear Mr Wallis, I have kept 12 of the paintings … Some of this lot are very beautiful & we like them very much indeed. Especially several of the stormy ones with the moon. I hope you are keeping very fit & enjoy your painting. I wish I could come & see you. Perhaps next summer. All good wishes Always Ben Nicholson Write & let me know if you are ever hard up & wanting anything. Can I send you any colours? Ben Nicholson letter to Alfred Wallis, 28 July, from Bankshead (NAL MSL.1980.31.3)


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Alfred Wallis Four Luggers and a Lighthouse c. 1928 Oil on card 16.5 x 26 cm Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art   [Wallis] enjoyed talking about his paintings, speaking of them not as paintings but as events and experiences. Ben Nicholson 1943, p. 52

In seventy years’ contact with the sea awake at any time—day or night, in darkness or light, storm or calm, a great deal of experience must have accumulated, and it is out of this store that this old man produced his paintings. When

he painted the sea and a ship he knew that the ship is featherlight as compared to the vast weight of the sea. How was he to express this in terms of paint, this very obvious fact so little realised by other painters? It is not easy to express and I wrote of it at length—but I don’t suppose that Wallis gave it a conscious thought, for when he painted, his awareness being so sure, it comes out right. He knew what it was to be at sea—entirely and totally— his paintings carry with them a ship-feeling, and a land-in-thedistance feeling and a pitching and tossing and a passing of lighthouses and other ships and a blinding of spray, and a vastness of sky which somehow seems above and below.

Old Alfred Wallis of St Ives, who never saw or cared about a stretched canvas and never set foot in an ‘artists’ colour-man’s’, made discovery after discovery within the four narrow walls of his untidy living-room. One day it was the plastered jamb of the door; another a long, narrow piece of building board which turned up from somewhere; another the back of the mount of a cheap Victorian print. Each discovery was the discovery of an idea, and in the identity of the painting and the bit of stuff on which it is spread is the essential life of a Wallis … But on different planes one of Wallis’ cardboards and a Nicholson canvas have the same character as being ‘discovered objects’ wrought into paintings.

Jim Ede

John Summerson 1948, p. 9

1984, p. 214

Wallis had an excellent sense of composition, and the sail and steam ships plying the surface of the ocean have a remarkable sense of movement and speed. His pictures have a pleasant rhythm and remarkable contrasting colours. The overall images exude life and vitality while the details are delightful and evoke a smile. Junichi Shioda 2007, p. 125

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Alfred Wallis Ship and Lighthouse c. 1925 Oil on board 30.5 x 37.5 cm Private Collection Inscribed on the reverse by Ben Nicholson: ‘I think this belonged originally to Kit Wood + came to me when he died – it is one of the first Wallis ptgs BN’   Wallis was an innocent painter, with a living rather than an intellectual experience, a power of direct perception, using his ship’s paint and scraps of cardboard on which he worked to achieve that


‘significant form’ of which Mr Clive Bell once spoke. Each painting was to him a re-living, a re-presenting, achieved unconsciously in regard to the art of painting, but vividly conscious in its factual awareness.… Both painters [Wallis and Wood], from so different a background, get a shock of joy out of the reality of what they see. It comes in upon them with a deep intensity, and absorbs their whole nature; they are the thing they are seeing; then through that strange miracle which is art they express themselves on paper or on canvas. The result, though it has little reference to actual appearances, does directly symbolize the most

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significant realities of the thing represented. I find written on an odd piece of paper: ‘An artist is one who sees the universality of the common incidents of life in an individual manner.’ I don’t know who wrote this, but it applies quite clearly to Alfred Wallis and to Christopher Wood. . . . With Wallis design comes, with its subtly variant lines and spaces, not through experience in the art of drawing or painting, but from closeness, almost an identification with the thing he is drawing.

At the end of 1928 his [Christopher Wood’s] paintings took on a new robustness of shape and colour. Their occasional quirkiness of positioning and perspective became positive values. The lustrous qualities of enamel paint added variety to their surface effects. ‘More and more influence de Wallis, not a bad master though,’ he wrote to the Nicholsons before he left. Charles Harrison 1987, p. 6

Fig. 36 Christopher Wood Cornish Window with Pipe 1928 Oil on board 53.3 x 63.5 cm Private Collection

It is a great moment in my life, I feel things are becoming really vital and the studentship has passed, my work is forming something quite personal and sure, unlike anybody else’s, and I don’t think anyone can paint the pictures I am doing. This time of quiet has come at the right moment as before I didn’t know enough to need it, but now it is essential as it is now or never, and I am making a big dash for it. Christopher Wood letter to his mother, from St Ives, 28 October 1928 (TGA 773.8)

In his good moments, and it is only in its good moments that art is attained, he had the same simple liveliness and freedom from the local found in Alfred Wallis.… In his life he had a sweeping joyous contact with a visual reality; and the paintings resulting from this contact are supremely rational. He painted them in order to put down in his enthusiasm, the reality of the thing he saw; it was an expression springing directly from the desire to say ‘I love this’ and not from a motive

of boasting a technical dexterity. This technical aspect of a painting did not occupy his thought, for he was essentially a painter. He was one of the few English artists who painted by nature, taking to it, as he took to all he did, with a simple directness. To paint a picture, to eat a dinner, to talk to a friend, to do a thousand other things, was just to live, and he lived more dangerously than most. Jim Ede 1984, p. 217

Jim Ede 1945, p. 46

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Ben Nicholson 1929 (fireworks) Oil on board 30 x 46 cm The Pier Arts Centre, Orkney ‘The subject matter of “fireworks” came first to Kit Wood’ [Ben Nicholson]. This is one of several paintings of the period 1929–32 when Nicholson was trying out unusual, often playful subjectmatter in free situations. The still-life subjects of this group of works often seem to have been chosen for their liveliness of decoration or texture rather than for their strength


of form, as if Nicholson were finding his own way out of the Cubist stilllife repertoire into a freer grouping of forms which would allow him to manipulate pattern, colour and texture independently on the surface of the painting. The striped and spotted decoration on the mugs, jugs and tablecloths, and the emblems from playing cards and lettering from packets, newspapers or shop-fronts become, as it were, prised loose and redisposed as elements on increasingly abstract pictorial schemes. Charles Harrison 1969, p. 19

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There is a fundamental difference between the two sorts of picture [landscape and still life]. The landscapes preserve most, though not quite all, of the traditional structure of nineteenth-century nature-painting. Not so with the still-lifes. Sometimes the objects are flattened out and sited ambiguously in space; sometimes the table-top shelves up and steeply towards the observer; invariably we see more of the scene than we could actually see in life. These elements from Cézanne and the Cubists cohabit, however, with something of the lyrical touch that everyone

admired in his father: in the Margaret Gardiner collection there is a painting called Rocket and Jack in the Box (1929) which illustrates this ideally. So tender and unforced is the handling of the fireworks in question that it is as if painting had begun again from the beginning. John Russell 1969, p. 16

Fig. 37 Christopher Wood A Cornish Window 1928 Oil on canvas 56 x 56 cm Private Collection

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Alfred Wallis Seven Ships at Sail in Harbour 1928 Oil and pencil on board 19 x 26 cm Private Collection Inscribed verso ‘By Alfred Wallis, was among the first batch of ptgs Kit Wood got from him, from Ben. 1949’

He paints all day – imaginative, elemental strange pictures on scraps of cardboard or old boxes. His simple ferocity makes most painting look utterly insipid. Winifred Nicholson letter to Cyril Reddihough, Autumn 1928

The old fisherman of St Ives, Alfred Wallis … often paints his seas with earth colours, white and black, colours which, if gathered up, will equal in hue or in tone or by some sort of affinity, the colour of his boats. But then he has been a fisherman all his life, accustomed to conceive the sea in relation to what lies beneath it, sand or rock and the living forms of fish. For him the colour of the sea is less determined by its glassy surface that reflects the sky. The surface of his sea, seen best on grey days, is the showing also of what lies under it, and boats are further showing compact for carrying men, an elaboration of the sea-shell, a solid darkness from depth the final fruit of an organic progression. Adrian Stokes

We may see Wallis’s paintings as charming, decorative and naïve images. There is an intuitive sense of design in his work and somehow they feel just right. The shape of the card and the image are one, all true, but this is only one side of Wallis; to see no further would be to miss much of what Wallis was striving to impart. He did not paint ‘pretty’ pictures; in fact often there is a darker side to his work, a fierceness that gives them an edge. In his work there is a real need to communicate, to tell us how things were when he was young. ‘Things are altogether changed … nothing is like it was,’ he tells Jim Ede in a letter accompanying a bundle of paintings. Robert Jones 2007, p. 134

Ben Nicholson 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2) Oil on canvas 45.8 x 52.7 cm Private Collection

Clearly Wallis appealed to Nicholson’s romantic (and modern) valuation of the primitive and childlike. But more specifically he was excited by Wallis’s ability to make his pictures come alive, partly by the sheer intensity of his feeling, partly by his method of working, which allowed the

material make-up of the painting to be undisguised yet, through the viewer’s eye, to be transformed into a vivid experience. This confirmed Nicholson in his tendency to stress in his own paintings the process of their making, so that they should be artefacts to be appreciated for

themselves as much for whatever they might refer to outside themselves. Peter Khoroche 2002, p. 25

1937, p. 64


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Alfred Wallis St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats c. 1932–34 Oil on card 64.1 x 45.7 cm Private Collection

As Nicholson wrote with hindsight: ‘One finds only the influences one is looking for and I was certainly looking for that one.’ … What seems particularly to have interested Ben Nicholson in Wallis’s paintings is the quality each conveys as—in his words— ‘an event in its own right’. … The ‘event’, for Nicholson, was that moment of transformation in which ‘cardboard’ becomes ‘sand’, and ‘object’ becomes ‘work of art’ by virtue of its absorption into an imaginative world. Charles Harrison 1987, p. 11

Wallis’s concern for detail shows up everywhere in his pictures. For example, he often painted scenes of large and small fishing vessels and boats surrounded by the U-shaped structure of the two wharves in St Ives, but he used two different colours for the bay, whitish gray and brown. In the painting … St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats, the brown is created by leaving the ground unpainted. I had thought that the water was brown because it was muddied for some reason. However, if one visits the location of the painting, the answer is very simple. The two colours show the different conditions at high and low tide. One shows what the bay looks like when it is entirely filled with water and the other the condition of the sandy beach when it is exposed. This is a familiar scene to someone who lives by the ocean. The artist has faithfully portrayed the Godrevy lighthouse seen off the coast of St Ives, the lighthouse and watch tower on the pier, the seines used off the coast etc., important places surrounding the bay, whether large or small.

Ben Nicholson 1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St Ives) Oil and pencil on canvas 90 x 120 cm Private Collection

The Stones

Junichi Shioda

G od rev y L ight

2007, p. 126 S









St I ves Ha r bou r

Stenna h R iver

G o d re v y Ligh t Bar Buoy

E ntra nce to Hayle E stu a r y

Th e S to n e s

St I ves Har b o u r

B ar B u oy



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Stennah R iver

E n t ra n ce to H ayle E st uar y

They have just sent me some photos of rather amusing early work exh. at T.N. [Temple Newsam] particularly one 1924 abstract ptg & a 1928 very large, very romantic ptg of a wild seashore with a wild horse prancing & a sailing ship, white lighthouse on a rock & a sky down in amongst it all & a

Victorian urinoir in the foreground. This would be interesting next to a white relief 10 years later. Ben Nicholson letter to John Summerson (TGA 20048.1.72.2)

  Wallis returned to the theme of St Ives Bay many times in paintings which are among the most poetic of all his work. Most of the St Ives paintings have a similar format. In the top right corner is Godrevy Island with its lighthouse. This lighthouse provides a beacon for vessels bound for the port of Hayle and a warning for the Stones, a

dangerous reef which extends a mile and a half seawards from the island. The left-hand side of each picture is occupied by the harbour of St Ives and the pier with its lighthouse at the end of the quay.… In the bottom righthand corner is Hayle Estuary, the entrance to the port of Hayle, and Lelant Saltings, used by the fishing fleet in winter and poor weather as a safe harbour. Although it is a safe harbour once inside, the mouth of the estuary is noted for its dangerous sand bar. Many boats have come to grief going over the bar, and it is essential to know

where the channel is. The channel through to the harbour is marked by the bar buoy, which features in most of Wallis’s paintings of St Ives Bay. The buoy would be unimportant to someone not connected with the sea, but for the seaman it is an essential feature. Robert Jones 2006, p. 84

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Winifred Nicholson Boat on a Stormy Sea 1928 Oil on canvas 55 x 80 cm Private Collection

Then we went to St Ives.… Kit with Froska, a great friend who had joined him, had a cottage on the edge of the Porthmeor beach where the sea is very wild, and green and crystalline. The boats as they pass have dark chocolate sails. You could see them out of a tiny window in his bedroom. On the far horizon passed steamers; up the channels on the white sand played ragged children. Winifred Nicholson ‘Blue was His Colour’, Unknown Colour, p. 91

All English people like the sea. Winifred Nicholson Foreword in Christopher Wood, Arts Council exhibition, 1979

I’m longing for Winifred’s sea one to come. I remember it as something very exciting and lovely. I’m glad to know its one you like especially. It is exciting when suddenly someone looks and sees something from just a little different angle from anyone else’s sight in the world. Helen Sutherland letter to Ben Nicholson, 26 December 1928 (TGA 8717.1.2.4696)


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Alfred Wallis Schooner and Icebergs c. 1928 Oil on card 33 x 69 cm, shaped Private Collection

It is extremely difficult to find in the visual arts today something as unselfconscious, as genuine, as direct and vital as we find in most primitive art.… If a painting is worked out within the terms of its medium then its edge, the outside edge of the form on which it is painted or worked, has a vital importance. The artificial conditions produced by painting on a stretched, rectangular canvas, later to be framed and sent to an exhibition, have forced painting out of its true direction and out of its natural and direct relationship to our lives, and it is difficult to understand why so many painters accept this convention without question: the entire form of a painting must be considered just as the entire form of a sculpture has to be considered; and it is this consciousness of the form, of the total form, in classical painting which makes possible its extension into other arts and into our lives. Ben Nicholson Artist’s Statement, in David Baxandall, Ben Nicholson, Methuen, London, 1962


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[Wallis] has the power to convey the exciting continuity of actual development; the sea-feeling, the ship-feeling, the land in the distance, the pitching and tossing and the passing of lighthouses and other ships, the smell of ropes and vastness of sky, the open sea and the shelter of harbour. A good painting holds potentially these other moments to the one depicted—what I would call the universal aspect, as opposed to the local one—and Wallis achieves this. His painting is felt, as only great and simple painting is. Jim Ede 1945, pp. 46–47

In a recent number of Horizon there was a description of how Klee brought the warp and woof of a canvas to life; in much the same way Wallis did this for an old piece of cardboard: he would cut out the top and bottom of an old cardboard box, and sometimes the four sides, into irregular shapes, using each shape as the key to the movement in a painting, and using the colour and texture of the board as the key to its colour and texture. When the painting was completed, what remained of the original board, a brown, a grey, a white or a green board, sometimes in the sky, sometimes in the sea, or perhaps in a field or a lighthouse, would be as deeply experienced as the remainder of the painting.

He used very few colours, and one associates with him some lovely dark browns, shiny blacks, fierce greys, strange whites and a particularly pungent Cornish green. Ben Nicholson 1943, pp. 50–51

Wallis’s paintings are truly unique. He painted with marine paint or oils on scraps of card, board, or wood, often of irregular shapes. Some of the shapes are boldly geometric, trapezoids or pentagons, and it appears that they were cut out with scissors. Compositions were determined by the shape of the support, producing an unexpectedly dynamic and free artistic world in a small space. In many cases the orange or brown of the card or board and the words printed on it appear through the paint, creating unexpected effects and foregrounding the physicality of the painting. Only a few colours are used, mostly dark green, navy blue, dark brown, and white, and the weightiness of the tones, combined with the rough brushwork, make an impression of strength and wildness on the viewer.

Ships’ records show that Wallis left the Pride of the West in St John’s [Newfoundland] and joined the crew of another West Country schooner, the Belle Aventure of Brixham, for a three-month voyage back across the Atlantic. It takes little imagination to realise that conditions could be extremely harsh aboard these sailing ships. To be profitable they sailed with the minimum number of crew members, perhaps four or five men, who had to be available day or night to make sail adjustments, pump ship, take their turn at the wheel or tiller etc. Ships could encounter terrible weather conditions, particularly in winter, when crossing the Atlantic. Gales could go on for weeks. We know that Alfred Wallis made two Atlantic crossings and may have made others. These experiences formed the memories on which his paintings were based half a century later. . . . Off the coast of Newfoundland he saw icebergs and they are shown in paintings as well as details of the ships that were significant to the seaman. Robert Jones 2007, p. 132

Junichi Shioda 2007, p. 125

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Christopher Wood Herring Fisher’s Goodbye 1928 Oil on board 37 x 59 cm Private Collection

I think you left just before the winter weather began. One cannot tell the season for there is not a tree, but there is a great feeling of intensity and usefulness like a garrison that is working in real earnest after a lazy peace. All the summer things have disappeared. The beach huts all gone, the windows onto the sea boarded up in the houses. The vegetable carts go their endless rounds. Ripe pears, bananas and the children making an infernal noise. The east wind is blowing all the herrings away from the bay and times are very bad, so they say, but everything goes on just the same each day. I can hear the port seagulls which are a dense cloud hovering and flying down on the guts of thousands of dogfish, small shark species which they skin on sort of stands on the edge of the water. It’s all hard and bloody but they are a fine lot of people and give me the same sense of admiration that the people of the north do in their different way.


All this is very beautiful but it’s all opium to me and not a very constructive humming drumming thing like St Ives can be. Christopher Wood letter to Winifred Nicholson, from St Ives, Autumn 1928 (TGA 8618.1.43)

St Ives is like a roulette table at the moment. There is a terrific storm lashing itself to pieces all round the place. The sea is no longer green but dead white and angry white all over. The sea gulls & fishing boats are blown about like bits of paper & the women scuttle into their houses like frightened rabbits. Luckily it is the Sabbath & the men don’t need fear not going out as they are looked upon as heroes at this time everyone goes to the jetty to see them leave for the herring fishing each afternoon at 4.30. They look like pirates with big jack boots up to their thighs and skin hats with wings to them like Mercury or was it Mars doesn’t matter which they look very brave & dashing as their boats go over waves like houses that come in just now round the pier. (I lie in Froska’s bedroom thinking of new pictures. The wind rustles past and whistles in a gruesome manner.) Christopher Wood letter to Winifred Nicholson, from St Ives, Autumn 1928 (WNA)

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The boats leave each afternoon at 4.30 passing out within 5 yards of the lighthouse so one can see them well. They stay out in this dreadful weather till 9 then come in and go out again at 10 till 5 & 6 in the morning, then they look after their nets and as they say by the time they have had a cup of tea and a smoke its time to start off again. No sleep on this blasted job, they say. Christopher Wood Letter to Ben Nicholson, from St Ives, Autumn 1928 (WNA)

His painting reached a higher level than it had yet done. The ships and the sea and the fisher people were painted with imaginative reality. He would have liked to stay there for ever. Winifred Nicholson ‘Blue was His Colour’, Unknown Colour, p. 91

The sea is not so much saltwater, but the ebb and flow and depth of anguish. Boats are not craft for the fish trade but courage itself—gusting off with set sail into the foul weather to an unknown destination beyond the horizon.

The majority of people look no further than the visual, but the artist must find and reveal in his picture of the sea … its immense changeableness, its volume, its colour, its smell, its perpetual movement, and eventually reach the simple, yet intensely true statement of these things as seen in his painting. Nothing is lost by simplification, everything is gained. By his remarkable sense of tone, a sense seldom at fault, he gives authority to his simplest statements. A talking brush Kit Wood had, and talk which was alive from corner to corner of his canvas; an easy manipulation of paint, free but never showy or slick. He does not clutter his idea with irrelevant furnishing, indeed so truly is he master of the situation that he can leave large restful spaces for the eye to dwell upon, spaces held by the force of his intention. Jim Ede 1984, p. 218

Winifred Nicholson Foreword in Christopher Wood, Arts Council Exhibition, 1979

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Christopher Wood The Fisherman’s Farewell 1928 Oil paint and graphite on plywood 27.9 x 70 cm Tate

Winifred Nicholson The Island, St Ives 1928 Oil on canvas 59.5 x 73.5 cm The Dartington Hall Trust Leonard and Dorothy Elmhurst bought this painting for Dartington Hall from the Leicester Galleries exhibition [Paintings by Winifred Nicholson, Leicester Galleries, March 1930] and it


has always been known there as ‘Pilchard Nets’. Certainly a fisherman lays out his pilchard nets in the foreground, but no painting with this title was ever exhibited. The painting shows the coastguard station on the northern point of the Island, St Ives. It was probably painted from the hill on which St Nicholas Chapel stands. The rock with Godrevy lighthouse is in the distance. Curving pencil arcs can be seen all over the surface of the

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paint, particularly in the lighter tonality of the upper half of the canvas, revealing the way Winifred Nicholson approached the act of painting and the planning of a composition. She made sweeping gestures with a pencil or crayon in her hand, and these gestures resulted in a series of interlocking or overlapping graphic arcs. They do not necessarily relate to the layout of the composition as painted, but they helped her to stake out the web of connections

revealed by looking at coloured objects in a certain light. Judith Collins 1987, p. 82

I painted too with the keenest delight. My little boy ran with bare feet by the sea. When the winter set in we had to go. It was a bitter wrench for me.

His [Christopher Wood’s] problem was to create a parallel to visual facts and not an imitation; his subjects only excite his fancy by their pictorial significance. He loved trees and boats, or the sea, as things to paint, and he at once saw them as paintings. Thus they were ready made, so to say, but in accomplishment they were visually far from the chosen subject. He had the power of interpretation in a high degree, and an extraordinary perception of relevant matter. With these qualities to help him, the picture is ready in his instinct; and with his simple relationship to his medium, the actual statement follows with comparative ease, as if they were almost automatic interpretations of the trained instinct.

The Fisherman’s Farewell presents the Nicholson family in front of a view of St Ives harbour and bay. As Richard Ingleby has pointed out, the title may refer to the departure in October of Ben Nicholson, who left St Ives a few days before Winifred, to travel to London. By bestowing the title of fisherman on Ben, Wood reveals his esteem for his fellow artist, linking him with the people who they both so respected. The sense of imminent loss is emphasised by the harbour behind the figures, which is cluttered with boats getting ready to depart. Matthew Rowe Christopher Wood: a painter between two Cornwalls, 1997, p. 31

Jim Ede 1984, p. 218

Winifred Nicholson ‘Blue was His Colour’, Unknown Colour, p. 91

C O R N WA L L : F E O C K A N D S T I V E S


Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson: Art and Life  
Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson: Art and Life  

This book examines the artistic partnership of Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson in the 1920s and their friendship and collaboration with...