The device of setting a pot or vase before a window was a popular one in British art of the 1920s and 30s; examples occur in the work of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Christopher Wood, Mary Potter and John and Paul Nash amongst others. In contrast to their work though, where in general they include the actual structure of the window, the 'flowerpieces' of Winifred Nicholson appear unique in presenting the foreground flowers and distant background, held together formally and tonally, but primarily by colour harmonies.
The initial inspiration came in the winter of 1922 when Winifred and her husband Ben were staying at the Villa Capriccio near Lake Lugano in Switzerland. Ben had given Winifred a pot of lilies of the valley. As she commented at the time, 'this I stood on the window sill, behind was azure blue, mountain, lake, sky, all there, and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe. That picture painted itself, and after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill ... sunlight on leaves, and sunlight shining transparent through leaves and through the mystery of tissue paper' (see exhibition catalogue, Winifred Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1987, pp. 15-16). The resultant painting, Mughetti, (the Italian word for lily of the valley) circa 1922, is in a private collection.
Winifred's oeuvre expanded and developed, but the 'flowerpieces' remained a constant. She famously never signed or dated her works, but the present work bears an inscription on the reverse 'South Parlour/Winifred Nicholson/Bankshead Brampton/Cumberland £30' which, in a typically understated way, speaks volumes. Winifred and Ben purchased Bankshead, a 17th Century stone farmhouse, built on Hadrian's Wall, in 1923. The immediate appeal was the quality of light and the views, with windows to the south looking on to a sloping garden and orchard then away to the valley of the River Irthing. The windows to the north looked to the flatter lands of the Scottish border. Ben and Winifred each had first floor studios and Winifred painted the views in all weathers and conditions. As well as being precisely located in the house, the present view is unusual in that it includes the glazing bars and window-sill and it is their physical presence, and the stark white framework which they provide, coupled with the bold colouring of the curtains that is integral to the composition. Fascinated by colour and colour combinations, the painting explores the juxtaposition of the turquoise, acid yellow and white that the view provides.
Throughout her life her paintings can be seen in relation to colour and in December 1944 Winifred devised a colour chart for an article 'The Liberation of Colour' which appeared in World Review. In this she describes the colours of the spectrum, considering the peculiar properties of each and how light changes them, using her own poetic names: faded oak leaf, sugar pink, baby ribbon blue, dragon's blood. This independent search gave her the confidence to review the influences of the 1920s and 30s and approach them with a fresh strength. Lily of the Valley, South Parlour, thought to have been painted circa 1950, shows her trademark 'flowerpiece' flooded with colour and painted with a renewed assurity and bravura.