In August of 1939, with the outbreak of war only days away, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and their five-year-old triplets moved from London to the safety of Cornwall, settling in St. Ives, a small fishing village that would soon become an outpost of the British avant-garde movement. Staying there until 1958, the artist would be profoundly influenced by the richness of the Cornish landscape. The present work exemplifies the impact of the rural surroundings on his style, which from 1944 through the remainder of the war years, would enter a new phase in his approach to both still life and landscape. The still-life had been a predominant theme in the artist's oeuvre until this point, but now the landscape begins to assume greater importance. Interestingly the artist seeks to evoke both in his title of the present work Still Life (Mount's Bay), the boundary between interior and exterior being visibly blurred, the elemental forms of the still life are now inextricably bound to and meld with the organic forms of the exterior landscape. This seeming fusion of foreground and background is a new development and takes the artist far from his earlier more severe abstract work.
The natural environment also triggered a renewed interest in colour. Unlike Mondrian, Nicholson did not restrict himself to primary colours. Indeed one of his most important contributions to abstract art was his liberated use of colour as the World Review editorial acknowledged in 1943 reflecting Nicholson's own beliefs: 'One of the most valuable contributions made both to painting and sculpture by the artists of the abstract school is their discovery of the power of colour when it is used in a liberated form and not in subordination to naturalistic requirements. For all instruments, colour approaches mostly nearly to music in its power to evoke mood' (quoted in exh. cat., Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, London, 1993, pp. 67-68).
From the present work, it is clear how much the landscape stimulated Nicholson's artistic sensitivities. This experience of land, sky and sea is evident in the jade-grey tones suggestive of Mount's Bay, the bright yellows and earth tones evoke the natural elements of the sun and the clouds over the green land around St. Ives. In a letter written to his patron Helen Sutherland two months before completing the present work, he described this very scene as an image he hoped to realise: 'These French & Cornish fishing boats that move in & out of the harbour with a white & red lighthouse - & this vast grey Bay with the clouds almost touching it and St M[ichael]'s Mount & the landscape beyond - & the sunny shadows moving over & through it all. I can't describe it but I expect one day something of this will come out in a ptg - it is the contrast between the sea & land which is so exciting' (quoted in op. cit., p. 86).