We are grateful to Sir Alan Bowness for his help in cataloguing the present lot.
Although the present composition is dated to 1930, it has been suggested that it was probably painted circa 1931-1932 and that it has been pre-dated (incorrectly) by the artist to 1930.
A photograph of Ace of Clubs exists in the Tate Gallery Archive on which Nicholson has written painting 1930, changing the date from 1932; this is likely to be Nicholson pre-dating a work when sold to Gimpel Fils, London, in the 1960s.
The present work is quite unlike the majority of still life paintings of 1930, but has very close links to the late 1931 or still more likely 1932 still lifes. Playing cards are seen in a number of works of the period as block letters, particularly transparent block letters- 'Au Source/Superfines' visible in the present work- clearly seen in works such as Still Life (Charbon) (coll. Dartington Hall); Bocque (Arts Council Collection); 1932 (2-3-10-12) (Private collection, London) and 1932 (Talc de Coty) (Pier Arts Centre, Orkney).
A number of distinct ground-breaking works by Nicholson of the 1931-1932 era were feastured in the exhibition Carvings by Barbara Hepworth Paintings by Ben Nicholson at Arthur Tooth & Sons' Galleries, London, between November 1931 and December 1932 (coinciding with the beginning of his relationship with Barbara Hepworth in the Autumn of 1932). In the markedly undetailed catalogue, five works by Nicholson (out of a total of thirty) are simply called Still life, one of which could refer to the present composition.
The prominent elements of Ace of Clubs are the playing cards - showing the ace of clubs and the queen (seemingly of diamonds), a bottle and by association with the 'transparent' capital letter text, superfines - presumably referring to cigarettes. The composition is a still life and if it was painted in 1930, it is an extremely rare early example of the use of these various compositional devices. If, however, it was painted two years later, which seems much more likely, it relates to Nicholson's short visit to Dieppe, with Barbara Hepworth in 1932.
John Russell explains, "He described this trip some years later; walking past the shop-fronts he noticed one which suggested to him a further inter-changeability in the table top idea. 'The name of the shop was "Au Chat Botté," and this set going a train of thoughts connected with the fairy tales of my childhood, and being in France, and my French being a little mysterious, the words themselves had an almost abstract quality - but what was important was that this name was printed in very lovely red lettering on the glass window - giving one plane - and in this window were reflections of what was behind me as I looked in - giving a second plane - while through the window objects on a table were performing a kind of ballet and forming the "eye" or life-point of the painting - giving a third plane. These three planes and all their subsidiary planes were interchangeable, so that you could not tell which was real and which was unreal, what was reflected and what was unreflected, and this created, as I see now, some kind of space or an imaginative world in which one could live.'
John Russell continues, "These paintings are the purest Nicholson: the fastidious fine-drawn line, the paint so transparent that the support seems to breathe through it, the delineation of objects which looks casual and elliptic but is really very much to the point. They give the feeling of life being lived on many levels, and of a world in which the image and the word are equal. The sheer facility of marks on the board or canvas, the refusal to press, the absolutely individual sense of design - all these were to recur in Nicolson's later work. For the first time he was completely himself in his painting" (op. cit., pp. 20-21).
The present composition echoes the ideas of Au Chat Botté (Manchester City Art Galleries) but with 'SOURCE', 'SUPERFINES' and, if left to ones own imagination perhaps 'B[ORDE]AUX', all inscribed, combined with playing cards and bottle arranged in a central square, there is perhaps a much stronger sense that we are either in a bar; or looking into a bar or conceivably looking at the reflection of a bar. Nicholson does not give us all of the answers, but he offers numerous visual clues with which to read this composition.