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 and Barbara Hepworth were at the forefront of this movement in Britain. Alongside Henry Moore, Nicholson and Hepworth keenly explored whatever leads of inspiration that they could find, both domestically and internationally. 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 meet Georges Braque in Dieppe and Alexander Calder, Diego Giacometti and Joan Miró in Paris. The following summer, Nicholson was introduced to Piet Mondrian by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Jean Hélion invited both Nicholson and Hepworth to join Abstraction-Création.
In the autumn of 1933, Nicholson produced his first reliefs and after a visit to Mondrian's studio in April 1934 his reliefs are white. Nicholson wrote of his visit, '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 P. Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: drawings and painted reliefs, Aldershot, 2002, p. 39). 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 [see lot 43] painting on rough board all contributed to the 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).
The working routine and hardship of Nicholson and Hepworth at this time produced some remarkable works and inspired a number of high-brow patrons and collectors. Amongst these were J.R. Marcus Brumwell who acquired works by Nichsolson, as well as Hepworth's signature piece from 1935, Three Forms carved from white marble and presented to the Tate collection in 1964 (see fig. 1). Brumwell also acquired a larger landscape-format work by Nicholson, including 1935 (white relief) which was exhibited at the 7 & 5 society exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in October 1935 and Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. Other key related works from this period include the oil on carved mahogany, white relief (1935) in the collection of the Tate, London.
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).
According to family history, the acquisition of the present work from Ben Nicholson was paid for over a number of monthly instalments while each artist was similarly impoverished. Sarah Jane Checkland comments, 'By now, finances were strained to breaking point for Ben and Barbara. On 3 April  she checked that Ben was 'working at supply' and admonished him to 'hold the thought about the rent for this place'. Helen Sutherland [a key patron of Ben's] sold some diamonds in 1933 to raise £100 for Ben, and had sent an additional £10 that March, so she could not be milked further. Father William [Nicholson] promised to set up a standing order of £10 a month from June, and at some point Ben persuaded the penniless Jack Hepworth to buy a white relief for £10 on 'the never-never' (see S.J. Checkland, loc. cit.).