The early years of the 1930s saw an unprecedented emergence of a move towards pure abstraction in avant-garde artists across Western Europe and Ben Nicholson was at the forefront of this movement in Britain. Alongside Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Nicholson explored many sources of inspiration, both in Britain and overseas. Nicholson's marriage to his first wife, Winifred, had broken down in 1931 (although he would continue to remain in contact with her) and from 1932 he shared a studio with Hepworth. In the Spring of 1933 Nicholson and Hepworth visited the studios of Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi in Paris, whilst on their return, they visited Pablo Picasso at Château Boisgeloup, Gisors, which Picasso had bought in 1930. Over the summer of 1933 they met Georges Braque in Dieppe and Alexander Calder, Diego Giacometti and Joan Miró in Paris.
In the autumn of 1933, Nicholson produced his first relief compositions and after the visit to Piet Mondrian's studio in April 1934, the reliefs that he made were pure white. Nicholson wrote of his visit, 'His studio … was an astonishing room: very high and narrow … with a thin partition between it and a dancing school and with a window on the third floor looking down on to thousands of railway lines emerging from and converging into Gare Montparnasse. He’d lived there for 25 years and except during the war had scarcely been outside Paris – he’d stuck up on the walls different sized rectangular pieces of board painted a primary red, blue and yellow and white and neutral grey - they’d been built up during those 25 years. The paintings were entirely new to me and I did not understand them on this visit … They were merely, for me, a part of the very lovely feeling generated by his thought in the room. I remember after this first visit sitting at a café table on the edge of a pavement almost touching all the traffic going in and out of the Gare Montparnasse, and sitting there for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose (!) - the thing I remembered most was the feeling of light in his room and the pauses and silences during and after he'd been talking. The feeling in his studio must have been not unlike the feeling in one of those hermits' caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws' (see Ben Nicholson’s letter to John Summerson, 3 January 1944, (Tate Archive) quoted in J. Summerson, Ben Nicholson, London, 1948, pp. 12-13). By October 1934, Nicholson and Hepworth had married and Hepworth had given birth to triplets.
Hepworth's carved work, combined with European influences such as the forms of reliefs of Arp, tied up with the craft idea of the self-taught Cornish fisherman-painter, Alfred Wallis, painting on rough board all contributed to Nicholson’s production of carved white reliefs such as the present work. In a letter to Herbert Read, Nicholson explains, 'I don't think Arp's reliefs had any influence on mine - mine came about by accident & bec. [ause] of Barbara's sculptor's tools lying around. But Arp's free sculptural forms did have an indirect influence - there was a free poetry in these which HM [Henry Moore] and BH's [Barbara Hepworth's] work lacked at that time - the same freedom was in Calder's earlier mobiles & Miro's about 1924-26 work - but direct influence came only from these. Arp's reliefs come from some almost literary poetic idea & for this reason he could conceive them & have someone else carve them out? Mine came about bec. of a passion for working with my hands. It's an exact opposite approach I suppose' (see J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1994, pp. 40-41).
Nicholson also accepted that the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich had been a 'considerable force' behind the development of his art during this period, however, there is also a deep fascination for the mystical connotations of shapes and forms. In a statement accompanying the 1934 Unit One exhibition Nicholson wrote, 'As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity - an idea which is complete, with no beginning, no end, and therefore giving to all things for all time ... Painting and carving is one means of searching after this reality, and this moment has reached what is so far its most profound point. During the last epoch, a vital contribution has been made by Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and more recently by Arp, Miró, Calder, Hepworth, and Giacometti. These artists have the quality of true vision which makes them a part of life itself' (see M. de Sausmarez, 'Ben Nicholson', Studio International, 1969, p. 31).