Research point: Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)

Ben Nicholson with second wife Barbara Hepworth

Ben Nicholson with second wife Barbara Hepworth

Why does Ben Nicholson simplify life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?

The simple answer is that still life and landscape are the two forms that Nicholson most enjoyed, so it seems perfectly natural that he would bring them together.

At first a simplified landscape  with an abstract still life superimposed might seem incongruous, but our views of landscape are often filtered through natural and man-made objects, particularly if we are looking through a window. In creating his landscapes intertwined with still life, Nicholson generally set up a group of objects close to a window.

In the case of Nicholson’s painting Mousehole (1947, oil on canvas, mounted on wood) abstract still life elements appear floating over a simplified landscape. These apparently disparate parts are pulled together by a shared colour palette (muted greens, browns and gold).

The texture also helps to bind the elements together. There are areas of thin paint which appear to have been roughly scrubbed away. The influence of Nicholson’s relationship with the sailor turned naïve painter Alfred Wallis, who lived nearby in St Ives, can be seen in the boat and simplified buildings.

Mousehole is an example of what has been called Nicholson’s ‘domestication’ of the English landscape. He compared his working method with the memory of his mother scrubbing the kitchen table, revealing his determination “to show that the making of art was ordinary and domestic, as essential as housework”. Perhaps mixing domestic items up with landscape is an expression of this feeling.

Initially the viewer may see the still life in the foreground of Mousehole as part of the landscape itself.  Nicholson said:  “All the ‘still lifes’ are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me.” This doesn’t feel like an alien notion… a still life is in a sense a detail within a bigger landscape.

Other examples of Nicholson combining the Cornish landscape with abstract still life include:

13 December 1947 (Trendrine 2)
1943-45 St Ives

Nicholson’s early still lifes and landscapes were influenced by his artist father, William but he soon moved away from traditional painting. He painted his first abstract work in 1924 after visiting Paris and being inspired by Cubism.

Married three times, Nicholson’s second wife was the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. They moved to Cornwall during World War II and helped to establish the highly influential St Ives School. Nicholson lived and worked in Cornwall from 1939 to 1958, taking inspiration from the sea, boats, rocks, cottages and  countryside, as well as the special quality of the light. The area became famous for abstract painting and sculpture and had a major impact on modern art in Britain.

Nicholson is best known for  a series of three dimensional White Reliefs which he created between 1934 and 1937. He was influenced by the purity  of Mondrian’s work, and his friendships with Barbara Hepworth (they married in 1938) and Henry Moore may also have prompted this move into three-dimensional art.


BBC Your Paintings
British Council
National Gallery of Scotland

Note to self: Writing this reminds me of how nice it would be to revisit Kettles Yard in Cambridge (just an hour or so up the road) where there are some Ben Nicholson’s and lots of Alfred Wallis’s work on display. (Have just looked up the website and found the house is closed until next year so that’s one for 2014.)


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