This unusual fruit and vegetable still life was painted in 1931 during William Nicholson's only visit to South Africa. Featured is a Hubbard squash, a tasty winter squash very popular in South Africa, with half a Custard Apple, or sugar sop, a tropical fruit which is by contrast quite uncommon.
Apart from his four well-known mushroom paintings, Nicholson rarely painted fruit or vegetables; although of the dozen or so recorded examples, nearly half are in public collections. Unusually shaped or coloured fruit and vegetables attracted him: there is a paw-paw in the Fruit Still Life in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (purchased from the artist in 1929), the untraced Persimmons (exhibited 1927) and the earlier Parrot and persimmons (1915, Glasgow Museums: Burrell Collection). Fruit and Vegetable Still Life in the National Gallery of Canada (circa 1938) features a large marrow and there is a missing group with a cauliflower and radishes (exhibited in 1930 as Vegetables).
All these items are intact - Nicholson found sufficient interest in the shapes, surface textures and colours of these objects that he felt no need to dissect them. Indeed the only other fruit and vegetable still life where he has cut into one of the pieces in Tomato and Pine Apple (1929, formerly Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia). Here there are two objects of similar size: a very large tomato sits beside a small bisected pineapple, freely painted with a warm palette.
In Still Life with Squash Nicholson was obviously sufficiently intrigued by the knobbly green exterior of the Hubbard squash to cut it open in order to discover what lay within. The custard apple beside it is also unusual in that while it has a green skin and a creamy-white flesh, which would seem to accord with the tonal balance of the painting - the artist, however, has chosen to show it as it becomes after exposure to the air for some time: discoloured to a shade of brown. It is interesting that he has made this choice.
There is also an intensity to the composition and modelling which sets it apart from the majority of the other works named. There is no basket, nor textiles to harbour the objects; instead they stand on what appear to be bare boards, the picture plane manipulated by the line of boards, a counterpoint to the rhythmic curves of the squash. Further sections of the squash appear in the upper right corner of the painting. The area upper left, and down the right hand side of the paintings have been reworked by the artist, though why this should have been necessary is unclear. Finally mention should be made of the artist's minimal use of shadows. Works such as Pink Lustre with Carnations, 1936 (sold Christie's, London, 18 November 2005, lot 19), or Zinnias in a Glass Vase, 1921 (exhibited London, Royal Academy, William Nicholson 1872-1949: British Painter and Printmaker, October 2004 - January 2005, no. 37) make dramatic use of shadows giving reference to objects and light sources outside the picture space; this can be interpreted as optimistic. Yet here the focus is almost entirely on the picture space itself. There is no reference to an outside world, apart from the flattened sections of squash on the horizon line right. The light source left is muted and almost negligible. In a way Nicholson is facing up to reality: he has chosen to look beneath the surface of the squash and to show the degeneration of the heart-shaped custard apple, eschewing reference to the world outside the picture space he honestly confronts the two objects before him. This unusual and intriguing work was one of those selected for illustration in Lillian Browse's catalogue of the artist's paintings, published in 1956.