When Ben Nicholson moved to St Ives just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the change had a profound effect on his creativity. Sharing a small house with his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and their three children, the difficulties of securing painting materials and the problems of selling work during war time, all prompted a return to landscape painting for the first time in almost a decade. To begin with, many of the works he made were modest in scale with none more than 50 cm. in width, often on board, and tended to depict St Ives itself, or the surrounding area (see for example 1939-41 (Winter Landscape – Halsetown), Ferens Art Gallery, Hull). Nicholson had always delighted in drawing and related, 'I have some pleasure in doing them on the side – the dealers now write to me for them & it seems almost my only way to make sales but above all it is an excuse to go off with a thermos & sandwiches for the day into the country & make drawings' (see C. Stephens (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson in England: A Continuous Line, London, Tate, 2008, p. 58).
The origin for these landscapes lies partially in the illustrations to a children’s story George and Rufus that Nicholson had created before the war, and were made into a fabric by his friend Alistair Morton at Edinburgh Weavers (see L. Jackson, Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art, London, 2012, pp. 90-91).
All three versions that Nicholson painted of St Ives in 1940 show the harbour and lighthouse on the pier, with the Fisherman’s chapel perched on the Island in the distance, and a toy-like boat sailing out to sea, echoing the works of the marine painter Alfred Wallis that had made such a strong impression on Nicholson when he first visited St Ives in 1928. They differ in that 1940 (St Ives, Cornwall) depicts the view across the sands of Carbis Bay towards St Ives, while in 1940 (St Ives, version 2) (The Philips Collection, Washington) Nicholson has placed a characteristic still life before the view (see N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, pp. 176-8). The current work, 1940 (St Ives, version 3), is the only one to have two houses placed so prominently in the foreground, with a delightful still life visible through the window of one of the houses, the open door opening onto a tantalising glimpse of one of Nicholson’s pre-war reliefs. What also distinguishes the current lot is the way Nicholson, in a characteristic manner, has scraped away the area round the still life, sufficient to create an indentation and to reveal the faintest of tree rings in the panel, thus sharing with us the delight he has enjoyed in making the work and enhancing its object-like feature.
1940 (St Ives, version 3) portrays a playful note of innocence and delight in the Cornish light suggesting that, however dark the days of 1940 were, these are qualities that Nicholson believed would endure.
We are very grateful to Jovan Nicholson for preparing this catalogue entry.