Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)
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Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)

69 (Holkham Sands no. 2)

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)
69 (Holkham Sands no. 2)
signed, inscribed and dated 'Nicholson/69/(Holkham Sands no. 2)' (on the reverse)
oil on carved board, relief
32 x 64¼ in. (81.4 x 163.1 cm.)
with Marlborough Gallery, London, 1972, where purchased by the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson New Reliefs, London, Marlborough Gallery, 1971, no. 12, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Masters of the 19th & 20th Centuries, London, Marlborough Gallery, 1972, p. 116, no. 58, illustrated.
London, Marlborough Gallery, Ben Nicholson New Reliefs, October 1971, no. 12: this exhibition travelled to Zürich, Marlborough Galerie AG, November - December 1971; and Rome, Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, March - April 1972.
London, Marlborough Gallery, Masters of the 19th & 20th Centuries, June – August 1972, no. 58.
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Lot Essay

Nicholson's life in Switzerland had a profound effect on his artistic output in the 1960s, with a move from painting still lifes, as he had in the preceding decade, to carving layered blocks and carefully segmented relief compositions. Furthermore, the influences of both the landscape in Switzerland, Italy and Greece - where he travelled frequently - were clearly visible in the tonality of the surfaces and the colour palette that suffused these works. Nicholson painted 69 (Holkham Sands no. 2) after a trip to Norfolk in 1969, immediately adopting a greater clarity and simplicity, which was to infuse his work over the next few years.

The physical process involved in the production of the relief paintings is clearly seen in 69 (Holkham Sands No. 2) with the sharp angularity, precise edges and very subtle textured and layered relief. The component parts of angular relief providing a sense of the sectional channels of beach that are revealed and created by water as it finds its natural route out to sea. This is underscored by the large white painted central element which shows a subtle rippling to the surface as might be visible in the middle ground of the beach revealed by the receding tide. By use of varied thicker and thinner paint, colour is worked into the painting, to create a surface that is in constant flux, further textured and pitted to recall the natural landscape and the distant point where beach, sea and sky merge. There is a sparse, light rigour to Ben Nicholson’s 69 (Holkham Sands no. 2) that perfectly captures the sense of expansive light, sea and air of the Norfolk beach after which it is named. They are crisp prisms and distil the landscape into a geometric composition of an eloquent though restrained lyricism. There is a sense of openness that reflects the relative flatness of Norfolk, especially at the coast there. Nicholson has made use of this meeting of the elements in nature to create a work that blends the figurative with the abstract. While the composition itself appears to recall the visual language of Nicholson’s ‘Concrete’ works, it is nonetheless clearly rooted in the more concrete reality of the beach.

Nicholson himself explained the influence of wide open spaces he encountered on his trip to Holkham to his friend Solly Zuckerman, with whom he had stayed (see S.J. Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London, 2000, p. 370). Nicholson had known Zuckerman for decades. A zoologist originally, he had had an incredible career that had seen him knighted in recognition of his services as chief scientific advisor first to the Ministry of Defence and later to the government. Nicholson and Zuckerman had also both been made members of the Order of Merit in the same ceremony in 1968, the year before 69 (Holkham Sands no. 2) was painted; this remains the only decoration under direct control of the monarch. Two years later, Zuckerman would be raised to the peerage; he was also a prominent advocate of nuclear non-proliferation. Zuckerman had a home called The Shooting Box at nearby Burnham Thorpe, and it was while staying there that Nicholson made his momentous trip to Holkham Sands, a couple of miles away. Nicholson painted another related large scale work in the same year, 69 (Holkham Sands I), now in the Paul Mellon collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., U.S.A.

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