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Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson,

Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray

Art and Life 1920-1931


Jovan Nicholson, with essays by Sebastiano Barassi and Julian Stair


London: Philip Wilson, 2013

Hardback. 192 p. ISBN 978-1781300176. £35.00


Reviewed by Charlotte Gould

Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris


Ben Nicholson created some of the most influential abstract paintings in the history of British art. His almost sculptural white reliefs are today indissociable from the abstract sculptures his wife Barbara Hepworth exhibited alongside him in London and in St Ives. After World War II, the couple had become key figures of this artists’ colony and, together with their contemporary Henry Moore, they were instrumental in shaping a vernacular form of Modernism. The present book, however, focuses on Nicholson’s first marriage - Nicholson was married three times and Hepworth was his second wife - and on the earliest part of his career, a period when, in spite of a fraught relationship, his painting was still influenced by that of his father William Nicholson. Ben Nicholson, then 26, met Winifred Roberts, 27, also an artist, in 1920, and they were married that same year. Art and Life charts the length of their relationship, from 1920 to 1931, the year Ben separated from Winifred to start a relationship with Hepworth. Ben and Winifred were eventually divorced in 1938. While Winifred was left behind with three young children, she adopted a dignified position and the two managed to remain close enough for their work to continue to resonate with that of the other. She wrote a letter to Ben shortly afterwards which the book quotes from: “I have been extremely lucky. I have had ten years of companionship with an ‘all-time’ painter, working in the medium of classic eternity and that has been better than a lifetime with a second class person.” [45]

Art and Life is published on the occasion of an exhibition held at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, at the Leeds Art Gallery and at the Picture Gallery in London from October 2013 to September 2014. The curator of this exhibition and author of the book is art historian Jovan Nicholson, grandson to Ben and Winifred, who has relied on access to new material to tell the story of the couple and their artist friends. Sebastiano Barassi and Julian Stair provide two more essays, and an extensive selection of high quality reproductions of works are each one accompanied by relevant quotes or commentaries on the context of either their execution or reception. The whole makes for a fascinating exploration of the links between five artists and friends: Winifred, Ben, the potter William Staite Murray, the painter Christopher Wood and the older Cornish primitive painter Alfred Wallis. Their personal interactions and the artistic influence they had on one another are analysed in an in-depth yet respectful manner. The catalogue, part of a trend for exploring the role of friendship and marriage on artists’ careers, allows us to look at their works side by side and provides a gripping account of the formative years of some of the most prominent British modernists.

The first essay, entitled “The Allure of the South: The Nicholsons in Italy and Switzerland, 1920-23”, concentrates on the Nicholsons. It looks into their meeting and the way they set out working not so much together as alongside, working differently on the same subjects. Both born into well-off families, especially Winifred, they enjoyed the freedom of being able to travel and concentrate exclusively on their painting. Their early experiments conducted in Italy, France and Switzerland dealt mainly with the idiom of analytical Cubism - Ben had embraced Vorticism in 1919. The modest lifestyle they had adopted abroad was as much a way for them to break away from their family traditions as an aesthetic aspiration. Ben favoured landscapes and still lifes, the subject-matters his father was famous for, but approached them in a radically new style. Meanwhile, Winifred had discovered that flowers allowed her to work on colour. Each young artist was coming into their own on foreign soils, working at the same time and encouraging each other, while focusing on different aspects of their artistic research. Something Winifred expressed thus: “Ben’s sense of the balance of space and the rhythms 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.” [17] This link to their natural environment was to be a determining aspect of their practice, especially in the way their visits to Cornwall were later to inform their art. Ben eventually destroyed most of the early work he had produced in Europe, while Winifred, probably more advanced artistically at that time of her life, looked back on this period as the moment when she found her style.

The second essay, “Factive Plasticity: The Abstract Pottery of William Staite Murray”, is written by Julian Stair. It is a very convincing presentation of the status of pottery in 20th-century Britain, through the work of William Staite Murray, a friend of the Nicholsons who very often exhibited with them, and one of the leading potters of the period. Staite Murray believed pottery to be at the interface between painting and sculpture (Herbert Read and Bernard Rackham’s book English Pottery defending the same idea came out in 1924). He accompanied the rise of craft within the vernacular modernist movement by calling himself an artist who makes pottery rather than a potter, this at a time when Roger Fry was re-evaluating Chinese pottery and throwing pots himself. Also, he would give his pots titles - a bowl photographed page 95 is entitled Vortex. Staite Murray favoured abstract expression as well as the fusion of conscience between potter, clay and action. As one of the first Buddhists in England, he directed his attention to the East. Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach’s assistant, became a firm friend in 1921. The annual group exhibitions he took part in at the Seven and Five Society - by 1928 one of the most prominent exhibiting bodies - cemented his companionship with the Nicholsons, Wood and Wallis. But when Ben entered a new relationship with Barbara Epworth and a new phase in his art, Staite Murray lost a peer group. This sense of abandonment was compounded when he became stranded in Rhodesia because of the war and eventually had to give up pottery. At this point, Bernard Leach took the place Staite Murray had left vacant as the new foremost English potter and came to embody “the paradigm of the rural self-sufficient studio potter” [23].

The third essay written by Jovan Nicholson and entitled “Art and Life” is significantly longer. He explains how, through marriage, mutual admiration, friendship and support, the work of the Nicholsons, of Christopher Wood, of William Staite Murray and of Alfred Wallis was collectively shaped, while in each case retaining its specificity. The older mariner Alfred Wallis, a solitary Cornish painter the Nicholsons met in St Ives, was encouraged to make his practice public and was introduced to prominent collectors. In return he infused freedom in the work of the other four. His adventurous use of form painted on cardboard which was sometimes pierced through by nails had struck Ben, and Christopher “Kit” Wood was influenced by his palette of colours. By stressing these influences, the book manages to reassess Wallis’s impact on the others beyond a mere sharing of experience and of his closeness to nature, to insist upon more formal exchanges. Winifred’s characteristic use of colour, and of magenta especially which, she believed, allowed to hold her compositions together, were praised by her peers. Ben was very much inspired by her commitment and patience, a feminine sensibility which made him stray away from the Vorticist movement which he had embraced before they met: “once I’d tried a strong-man Wynd. Lewis phase I decided hard & strong led nowhere whereas sensitive even if temporarily weak could lead somewhere eventually & indeed if handled properly could lead anywhere.” [27] Ben’s advanced views on gender equality which Jovan Nicholson decides to open his text with were decidedly un-vorticist: “The deepest works of art are possibly those which combine an element of this deep feminine sensibility with an equal deep masculine power: neither can create without the other. A civilization can be gauged by the degree of equality reached between man and women!” [25] The tragic fate met by Christopher Wood is recounted poignantly, demonstrating that the support of his peers, though tremendous, could not alleviate personal struggles. Wood committed suicide in 1930 at the age of 29.

The story of Ben and Winifred Nicholson and of their friends who visited them in London, Cumberland or St Ives is one which has been slightly overshadowed by the figure of Ben Nicholson’s celebrated second wife Barbara Hepworth. This book allows us to revisit a seminal eleven years of creative discoveries and beneficial partnerships. This was a decade when these young artists made their marks on British modernism by exploring the intrinsic qualities of form and colour, as well as by allowing a vernacular primitivism to influence them. While the names of Ben Nicholson and of William Staite Murray may dominate today, the authors of this book shed light on the way they benefitted from working alongside their friends. This beautifully illustrated volume provides a wealth of information and references on the period and takes us on a journey through the day-to-day preoccupations of the artists behind the works.


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