Painter and sculptor, son of (1) William Nicholson. He attended the Slade School of Art in 1910–11 (contemporary with Paul Nash), but he was largely abroad between 1912 and 1918, devoting himself seriously to painting only after his marriage in 1920 to Winifred Roberts (see (2) above). Before this date his works show a painstaking competence in a traditional manner, closer to Vermeer than to any modern artist. Nicholson’s decisive commitment to painting coincided with his commitment to modernism. This entailed ‘starting again’ by reference to a different concept of art: one in which strength of expression was valued over accuracy of description, and ‘integrity’ and ‘freshness’ of formal invention esteemed over practised facility in delineation. During the 1920s Nicholson thus followed the path laid down by such theorists of modernism as Roger Fry. On visits to Paris he informed himself at first hand about the typical subjects of a modernist interest: the works of the Italian Primitives and of African tribes, and the paintings of Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Following an exhibition in 1923 at Paterson’s Gallery, London (with Winifred Nicholson), in 1924 he was invited to join the 7 & 5 Society. He was made chairman in 1926 and was to dominate the society from then until its demise. Ben Nicholson’s first one-man show was held in March 1924 at the Twenty-one Gallery in London.
Evidence of an informed interest in Cubism is explicit in some of Nicholson’s work by 1924 and is implicit in everything he did thereafter. It was also in 1924 that he first experimented with abstract painting. His characteristic works of the 1920s, however, are table-top still-lifes organized with deceptive simplicity, and landscapes painted in the Ticino in Switzerland (where he spent the winters of 1920–23), Cumberland (where he and his wife lived throughout the decade) and Cornwall (which he first visited in 1928, staying in Feock, south Cornwall, and in August of that year visiting St Ives with Christopher Wood). These works are characterized by the delicacy of their tonal relationships and by a decorative explicitness about the artificiality of their facture. By the end of the decade Nicholson was the leading representative of a small group of artists, identified with the 7 & 5, in whose works a moderate and characteristically English modernism was applied to iconographically uncomplicated themes.
Until the early 1930s English notions of the ‘modern’ in art were still largely formed by reference to pre-World War I international developments. Through visits to France in 1932 and 1933 Nicholson acquainted himself with the work of those artists of various nationalities who had made Paris their base during the 1920s, in particular Hans Arp, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder. These visits were made with Barbara Hepworth. A reorientation of Nicholson’s work at this time, marked for instance by a temporary withdrawal from landscape subjects and an increasing interest in non-figurative themes, coincided with the development of his relationship with Hepworth and with the departure from Cumberland for full-time residence in London. In 1933 both artists were invited by Jean Hélion to join the Paris-based association Abstraction-création, and both were members of the short-lived English group Unit one, formed in the same year. Nicholson’s work at this time was marked by an increased sense of the avant-garde. A series of experimental works led to the production of his first abstract relief in December 1933. During the following spring he made the first of the series of carved and white-painted reliefs that quickly marked him out at home and abroad as England’s most intractable modernist. In 1935 he presided over the final show of the 7 & 5, seen at the time as the first all-abstract exhibition in England, and in 1937 he co-edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art with Naum Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin. His essay ‘Notes on Abstract Art’ was first published in Horizon (October 1941).
The international abstract and constructive movement within which Nicholson had found his place was dissipated by World War II. In September 1939 he and Hepworth, by then married and the parents of triplets, moved from London to Cornwall, settling first in Carbis Bay and moving the very short distance to St Ives in 1943. Here Nicholson reintroduced naturalistic colour into his reliefs. He also recapitulated his earlier still-life and landscape themes, although his tendency to organize these in terms of flat and hard-edged planes reflects the experience of the abstract reliefs. The typical composition of the later 1940s is a relatively small-scale crystalline formal cluster, based on a series of well-practised still-life motifs, edged either towards abstraction through a flattening of the pictorial space, or towards naturalism through the addition of a landscape background. Despite his relative isolation from international developments, Nicholson’s presence in Cornwall during these years contributed much to the development of St Ives as a significant centre in the evolution of the modern tradition in painting.
During the 1950s Nicholson’s international status as an artist was recognized by a series of awards, culminating in the first Guggenheim International Painting Prize in 1956 and the International Prize for Painting at the São Paulo Biennale of 1957. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held in London at the Tate Gallery in 1955. During the late 1950s he produced a number of large paintings which combine the intricacy of the table-top still-lifes with the monumentality of the abstract reliefs (e.g. Aug. ’56 (Val d’Orcia), London, Tate). These works constitute a remarkable late extension to the international canon of works in the Cubist idiom.
In 1957 Nicholson married again, to Felicitas Vogler, and the following year he moved to the Ticino. Here, besides numerous smaller works and drawings, he produced a number of large abstract reliefs in which crisply delineated planes are imbued with naturalistic colour and texture. He received the Order of Merit in 1968, and the Tate Gallery in London staged a second retrospective exhibition in 1969. Nicholson left his third wife and returned to England in 1971, living first in Cambridgeshire and then in London, continuing to work and to exhibit regularly until his death. An exhibition of mostly recent work was held at Waddington’s Gallery, London, in March 1982, a month after he died.
© 2009 Oxford University Press