In August of 1939, with the outbreak of war only days away, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and their five-year-old triplets moved from London to the safety of Cornwall, settling in St. Ives, a small fishing village that would soon become an outpost of the British avant-garde movement. Staying there until 1958, the artist would be profoundly influenced by the richness of the Cornish landscape.
Nicholson's paintings of the early to mid-1950s belong to a group of works in which the Cornish landscape ceases to partner the still life in the way it had done in the 1940s. As the landscape recedes in these works there are distant echoes of the Synthetic Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque which Nicholson had first seen in Paris in 1920. Writing about Nicholson's still lifes at the beginning of the 1950s Norbert Lynton has written that 'our attention is sought first by the play of lines that represent the still life, secondly by the supporting planes that were the table, and thirdly by the wider setting and its implications of space and location' (quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 252). At first these works displayed only a semi-referential use of line that rarely fully delivered up the still life and colour is unassertive. As the period progresses the lines begin to coalesce and recognizable objects like a bottle, a jug or a goblet emerge from delicate patches of yellow, white and pale blue, creating a shifting, ambiguous sense of spatial relations. Transparent or lightly shaded areas are interspersed with solid accents of colour, as can been seen with Nicholson's use of yellow and red in May 55 (Pavane).
'It was a period of success in the eyes of the world. In 1954 he [Nicholson] represented British art at the Venice Biennale and gained the Ulisse award. That display became a touring show, going to Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich. He had separate one-man shows the same year in Brussels and at the Lefevre Gallery in London, and in 1955 the retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery as well as a one-man show at Gimpel Fils in London. 1956 brought him the Guggenheim award - first prize in the International Guggenheim Painting Competition - and there were other marks of international recognition as well as a surge of sales' (Ibid., p.270). Indeed, it was shortly after Nicholson completed May 55 (Pavane), that it was acquired by Hester and Donald Diamond, in New York, who added it to their important collection of 19th and 20th century works of art. May 55 (Pavane) is now offered for sale from the Estate of J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller, and has not been seen at auction since their purchase of the painting in 1963.