Ben Nicholson: master of ‘clarity and the great art of omission’

In a long life spanning London, St Ives and Switzerland, Nicholson never stopped experimenting and evolving as an artist, earning international acclaim and the admiration of peers such as Paul Nash and Piet Mondrian. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Ben Nicholson in 1932, right, 1936 (white relief), 1936, carved and painted walnut panel, relief

Ben Nicholson in 1932. Right, 1936 (white relief), 1936. Carved and painted walnut panel, relief. 70 x 29 in (177.8 x 73.7 cm). Sold for £1,842,000 on 22 March 2022 at Christie’s in London. Photo: © The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2023

To say that Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) had a complex relationship with his father would be an understatement. Both were artists, in Sir William Nicholson’s case a successful landscapist and portrait painter, who depicted the likes of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. A man of Edwardian wit and flair, he was no fan of his son’s avant-garde endeavours — and told him so. On visiting an exhibition of Ben’s in 1935, William asked sneerily, ‘Why don't you paint proper pictures?’

At the time, Nicholson fils was producing the white abstract reliefs that are today regarded as his great contribution to Modernism. One of the largest and finest of these, 1936 (white relief), sold for £1,842,000 at Christie’s in London in March 2022.

The differences between the two men weren’t just artistic. During the First World War, Ben had missed out on military action because of asthma — and, for the best part of a year, attended a health spa in California. While he was away, his beloved mother Mabel died from Spanish flu. To make matters worse, shortly after his return to England, Ben lost his girlfriend Edie, too — to his newly widowed father. The young couple had met while students together at the Slade School of Art in 1910, but Edie ended up deciding that the older Nicholson was the one for her. In the autumn of 1919, she and William married.

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), painting 1938 (red circle), 1938. Oil on canvas, in the artist’s frame. 38⅜ x 48¾ in (97.5 x 124 cm). Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 18 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

According to Ben’s biographer, Sarah Jane Checkland, ‘The initial shock of betrayal gradually hardened into hatred for his father. Not only was he now determined to succeed as an artist, but to do so by pursuing a course that diametrically opposed that of his father… Hence his commitment to abstraction.’

The truth was probably more nuanced than that. For a start, Ben spent his career moving seamlessly back and forth between the figurative and the abstract, rather than being devoted to the latter.

The inspiration for his art extended far beyond his own family, too. His first works were still lifes painted in a naturalistic fashion, but new influences soon brought themselves to bear — notably Cezanne and the Cubists.

The influence of Cubism and Alfred Wallis

Nicholson first encountered Cubism through the works of Picasso, on a visit to Paris in 1921. Thereafter he started rendering his repertoire of jugs, glasses and other table-top objects as flat shapes on the picture plane. A fine example, July 25-47 (still life — Odyssey 2), was sold at Christie’s in 2021.

In later life, looking back on that period, Nicholson stated that ‘Cubism, once discovered, couldn’t be undiscovered.’ It was a movement that continued to inspire him at different points throughout his career.

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), Nov 59 (landscape with monolith), 1959. Oil and pencil on carved board, relief, on the artist’s prepared board. 21⅝ x 23½ in (55 x 59.7 cm). Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Day Sale on 19 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

In the late 1920s, another major influence arrived, namely Alfred Wallis, a retired Cornish fisherman who doubled as a self-taught painter of naive port scenes. Nicholson would paint a host of landscapes — such as 1928 (cornish port) — inspired by Wallis’s playful distortion of scale and perspective.

It’s worth stressing, though, that his art never really followed a clear and obvious path. Nicholson was always too questing for that, often creating very different types or series of work at the same time.

The white reliefs

From 1934 to 1938, he made the most overtly abstract pieces of his career: the aforementioned white reliefs. These consisted of geometric shapes (predominantly circles) carved into a wooden board, which was painted all over in white.

Shortly before that period, Ben had left his first wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson, for the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and it was when he casually picked up one of Hepworth’s tools one day that he hit upon the idea for his reliefs.

Although they’re nowadays considered a peak of his oeuvre, few of Nicholson’s peers appreciated the works. One rare admirer was the artist Paul Nash, who interpreted the reliefs metaphysically, as microcosms of the infinite which ‘should each be seen as something like a new world’.

Relationship with Mondrian

In the 1930s, Nicholson made several trips to Paris, visiting the studios of Mondrian, Braque and Brancusi, among others. With their simple geometric structure, his reliefs have an affinity with Mondrian’s famous ‘Grid’ paintings, and the two men would go on to become close friends — and neighbours.

In 1938, with the threat of war in mainland Europe looming, the Englishman convinced the Dutchman to settle near him in London. The pair lived a stone’s throw apart, in the suburb of Hampstead, with Mondrian frequently joining Nicholson, Hepworth (now his wife) and their young triplets for tea.

At around the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Nicholson and Hepworth quit London for the picturesque town of St Ives in Cornwall. They begged Mondrian to go with them, but he declined, ultimately deciding to board a boat for New York, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), 1943 (painted relief), 1943. Gouache and collage on the artist’s prepared board, relief, in the artist’s frame. 15 x 19 in (38.1 x 48.2 cm). Estimate: £120,000-180,000. Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 18 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Still life meets landscape in St Ives

Nicholson remained in St Ives for the best part of two decades, enjoying its intense light and sea views. Perhaps his best-known works from this period are the paintings from the 1950s in which he inventively fused two genres: still life and landscape.

Essentially, this entailed — in a single picture — superimposing an example of the former on an example of the latter. Nicholson thus collapsed the distinction between interior and exterior — and, under the influence of Cubism anew, replaced an illusionistic compositional space with a set of elegantly flattened forms and overlapping planes.

The most expensive artwork by Nicholson ever sold at auction — his 1957 painting, April 57 (Arbia 2) — is one of these still-life/landscape fusions. It fetched £3.75 million at Christie’s in London in 2016.

Guggenheim Award and art-world recognition

After many years in which he had struggled both for sales and recognition, the late 1940s and the 1950s saw a significant upturn for Nicholson — as if contemporary tastes had finally caught up with his radical creations.

In 1949, he was invited to create two large panels for the interior of the New Zealand Shipping Company’s new steamship, the M.V. Rangitane — one of which, October 1949 (Rangitane), sold for £1,002,000 at Christie’s in 2022.

In 1951, he produced a vast mural for the Festival of Britain. Three years later, he was asked to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. Then, in 1957, he won the inaugural Guggenheim International Award for painting, receiving his prize and $10,000 cheque from President Eisenhower in the White House.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarding Ben Nicholson the Guggenheim International Award in 1957

President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarding Ben Nicholson the Guggenheim International Award in 1957. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

By the 1960s, Nicholson was living in Switzerland, in a house overlooking Lake Maggiore, with his third wife, the photographer Felicitas Vogler. There he returned to his painted reliefs of the 1930s, albeit with slightly different results. The type of shape was now more varied than before, and the palette went beyond white to include earthy colours.

Works such as (1965) Olympia, its title referring to ancient ruins in Greece, and Nov 59 (landscape with monolith) illustrate the career-long distillation of forms in his work that Vogler described as ‘clarity and the great art of omission’.

Nicholson died in 1982, aged 87.

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), July 1960 (back to back), 1960. Oil on carved board, relief. 17 x 17 in (43.2 x 43.2 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Day Sale on 19 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

The market for Ben Nicholson

‘The market for his work today is well established,’ says Angus Granlund, Head of Evening Sale in the Modern British and Irish Art department at Christie’s. ‘Nicholson’s importance as an artist has long been accepted.’

Which Nicholsons are the most sought-after? ‘The white reliefs from the 1930s,’ says Granlund. ‘They’re extremely rare and the majority are held in major museum collections. However, the post-war paintings fusing still life and landscape are more typical and abundant, accounting for four of his top three prices and five of the top ten achieved at auction.

‘This was an artist of international significance,’ he adds, ‘with a truly global audience.’

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As for Nicholson’s relationship with his father, it was he who had the last laugh. William and Evie separated in the early 1930s. Around a decade afterwards, William’s new lover, the writer Marguerite Steen, published a novel called The Sun Is My Undoing.

William died in 1949, and in his final years his art began to be deemed increasingly old-fashioned, just as his son’s started to grow more popular. Ben quipped that Steen’s novel should really be retitled The Son Is My Undoing.

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