Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 @Dulwich Picture Gallery

The artists

The painter Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 into a highly very artistic family, the son of two successful painters. In 1920 he met and married Winifred Roberts (b.1893), also a painter. In the early 20s they met the potter and ceramicist William Staite Murray (b.1881) and regularly exhibited their paintings along with his pots, and a little later the younger painter Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood (b.1901) with whom they became good friends and went on painting holidays together. In 1928 in St Ives Ben and Kit met the self-taught ‘primitive’ painter of the sea, Alfred Wallis (b.1855).

Ben Nicholson, 1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate, London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, 1921 – circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate,
London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate,
London 2013

The show

This lovely exhibition, curated by Ben’s grandson the art historian Jovan Nicholson, brings together some 80 paintings and pots into a detailed examination of the personal and artistic relationships between these five artists during the 1920s. It is low-key and thoughtful and genteel and restrained. It is not loud or revolutionary or Modern. It is very English.

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private
Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

It was an interesting era. Just after the Great War which they’d been too young to fight in, their generation wanted to say ‘goodbye to all that’ and, like Robert Graves, be artists together living in a cottage with a wood-burning range, close to the earth, honest and true, away from the pomp and circumstance and bombast which had led to the great catastrophe.

Their home at Banks Head in Cumberland had no electricity till after the second war. Its rawness is captured in Winifred’s painting of their only source of heating and cooking, the old metal ‘range’, titled Fire and Water (1927).

Little England

The reviewer for the Telegraph (link below) said he fell asleep half-way through the show. He was expecting too much. This isn’t huge and sumptuous like Veronese at the National Gallery or big and bold like Matisse at Tate Modern. It is along similar lines to last year’s fascinating Crisis of Brilliance show at DPG. By showing the interconnections and cross-fertilisations of a group of not-really-A-list artists it conveys a much broader sense of the art world – and the wider world – of the time.

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York
Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

‘Fun’

In his guided tour the curator Jovan repeatedly used the word ‘fun’ and his enthusiasm was infectious. He explained how Ben and Winifred often painted the same view side by side, Ben interested in form, Winifred in colour. They corresponded and exhibited with Staite Murray, discussing form and shapes and patterns which were appropriate in paintings and pottery.

The fun comes from examining the works created by the artists and teasing out the network of subject matter and influences and, to this end, paintings of the same views or subject are hung next to each other.

Form and flowers

A striking early example is Ben’s first abstract painting from 1924, a slightly weedy response to the post-cubist explosion of abstraction taking place on the Continent in the work of, say, Mondrian or Matisse. But it changes our reading of the image to know that it was painted at the same house in Chelsea, and probably is based on the same view out the window, as Winifred’s King’s Road, Chelsea 1925. The two are hung next to each other and the more you look, the more Ben’s abstract brings out the abstract element in Winifed’s painting, and the more Winifred’s helps you see the originally figurative elements in Ben’s.

Northrigg Hill

Another example comes in the third room where the show hangs a painting each by Ben, Winifred and Kit of the same view in Cumberland, giving the opportunity to directly compare and contrast. Winifred probably wins for her subtle use of colour. Jovan pointed out that she has made the lane snaking to the horizon pink, an unlikely colour for a Cumbrian road, but one that fits with the colour scheme.

Apparently, Ben was obsessed by questions of form and had competitions with Kit Wood to sketch or paint the same view using as few lines as possible. Winifred thought about colour and Jovan tells the story of her discovering a vibrant new shade of pink which she told her husband about – and which he promptly used in a still life.

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela
Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

English modernism

They were conservative. They were attached to England and a vision of England which sought to combine Continental modernist elements without the violence, without sacrificing the interest in beautiful landscape of their native tradition. If you view it from a 21st-century cosmopolitan point of view, lots here can look weedy, tame, genteel, twee. So don’t look at it that way. Usually I dislike and despise the insipid decorativeness of the Bloomsbury artists of the post-war era. But this exhibition won me over and I began to really enjoy the paintings.

I liked Ben Nicholson’s scoring of the surface of the canvas in paintings like Still Life LL or Still Life with Jug, Mugs and Bottle. Of this latter painting Jovan pointed out that the top of the goblet is in front of the jug, but the bottom of the jug is in front of the goblet, a discreet trick of perspective. Jovan said that whenever he looks at a Ben Nicholson he always looks first for the humour. I personally was excited by the rough scraping of the paint surface in a piece like 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2), which was apparently scoured with sand from the beach in the view. I think it is a really great painting, striking and forceful.

Staite Murray

Staite Murray was his own man, older (b.1881) and a successful teacher at the Royal College of Art. He was Buddhist and much influenced by the Chinese Sung dynasty ceramics that had begun to appear in London in the 1920s. His interests in a restrained, domestic and organic type of modern decorativeness led to the exchange of many letters and ideas and designs and motifs, with Ben especially, and they exhibited together numerous times in the 1920s.

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, ©
York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

 

Each room in the exhibition has some examples of Murray’s work and, like all the works here, it would be easy to dismiss them as a bit traditional, a bit dull – but the closer you looked, the more you saw the care and attention to detail which had gone into their creation. I liked the one with cascades of falling arches down the side – Cascade – and a tall, striped pot humorously title named The Bather (1930) because of its similarity to the classic one-piece bathing costume of the time.

There’s a lightness and humour to most of the exhibits here, a calmness and humanity, which  is more appealing the more you look and allow it to influence you.

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Christopher Wood

The possible exception is the work of Kit Wood, younger than the others, which has an intensity created by his use of black and very dark paint. Here he paints Winifred’s favourite subject, the vase of flowers on a windowsill with a landscape behind it but how different the affect is, the dominant colour being the black of the windowsill picked up by the black flowers, the black top of the boat and the black hedgerow in the left distance.

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm, © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm,
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Kit doesn’t share the general sweetness & light and it comes as no surprise to learn that he had the classic young man’s tempestuous relationship with a lover/muse (the Russian-born Frosca Munster) of whom he painted a large primitive nude – The Blue Necklace – which is completely out of keeping with most of the rest of the show where the human figure is very rare. Still, it was surprising to learn that he was an opium addict who struggled to find a supply in the isolated rural locations where the artists liked to live and paint.

Alfred Wallis

Kit and Ben were staying in the tiny village of Feock in Cornwall (and had made a number of wonderful paintings of the nearby Pill Creek) when they went on a day trip to St Ives and met the self-taught mariner and ‘primitive’ painter Alfred Wallis. After an adventurous life at sea, Wallis (b. 1855) had taught himself to paint using ship paints applied to irregularly-shaped cast-off pieces of wood or card with holes knocked in the top so he could hang them on his walls with nails.

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private
Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Wallis’s paintings are almost all of ships and the sea and St Ives with a confident disregard for perspective or realism. They are wonderfully liberated and expressive, and in some ways Wallis the amateur is the real star of this show – his style was much stronger, more fully-formed and rooted, than Ben or Kit or Winifred’s and he had an immediate impact on them.

Again the exhibition carefully related works together for us to compare and contrast, in this case the Wallis originals next to the paintings Kit and the Nicholsons created immediately afterward meeting him and seeing his work. The impact is clear and obvious in, for example, this work by Ben which is one of the standout pieces in the show.

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s
Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved,
DACS

Typically, Christopher Wood brought a much darker palette and emotional turmoil to his paintings of the same setting. In the deliberate primitivism of his depiction of the human figure, in the use of a figurativism which ignores the previous 500 years of academic painting, Wood here reminds me of LS Lowry.

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private Collection

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private
Collection

Ben championed Wallis’s work back in the London galleries where he and his friends exhibited, and continued to correspond with Alfred, some of their exchanges being included in the exhibition and catalogue.

Epilogue

Just as with the Crisis of Brilliance show there is a sad epilogue describing the artists’ careers after this lovely decade:

Ben met Barbara Hepworth, fell in love with her and began the process which led to his divorce from Winifred in the 30s, although they stayed friends to the ends of their lives. Under Barbara’s influence the interest in abstract form which you can see peeping out of many of these paintings came to the fore and by the mid-30s he had become pretty much the face of British modernist painting. The Telegraph critic says it was a mistake to include a mid-30s abstract piece at the end of the show as it makes everything leading up to it look like juvenilia. I disagree. I think many of the paintings from the 20s are more rewarding, varied and interesting than the milk-and-water abstract white cutouts which he developed in the 30s and which I’ve always thought were poor copies of more virile European experiments.

Winifred ducked out of fame and fortune and accepted a lesser career, spending part of the time in Paris, hobnobbing with the cream of the avant-garde, but continuing to explore the subtle use of colour in her lovely still lifes of flowers.

Kit killed himself. Isolated in St Ives from a regular of the opium to which he was addicted he began to smoke the dregs of his supplies, bringing on worse hallucinations and psychological problems exacerbated by his intense relationship with the Russian muse. He took his life in August 1930, aged just 29.

William continued experimenting with ceramics, building his own kiln and patenting the design. But he happened to go to visit relatives in Rhodesia in 1939 just before the second world war broke out and ended up staying and, as Jovan said, mournfully, he never potted again.

Alfred Despite the eloquent support of Ben and Winifred, Wallis sold few paintings and lived in poverty until he died in the Madron workhouse in Penzance in 1942.

In this characteristically gentle painting, Winifred gives a primitive impressionist account of a sailing boat on the water which also shows her and Ben’s son in the foreground playing at a rockpool with a toy sailing boat which, Jovan told us, Alfred gave the couple as a gift – an image of English pastoral and human kindness which exemplifies the spirit of this life-enhancing exhibition.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm, Courtesy of Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Art and Life continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 21 September.

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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2 Comments

  1. Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’ | That's How The Light Gets In
  2. British Folk Art @ Tate Britain | Books & Boots

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