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

Walk: Cranleigh

12 May 2012

By train to Ockley in Surrey, a few stops south of Dorking. Cycled 6 miles to Cranleigh through the villages of Ewhurst and Forest Green. For the first few miles the tower of Leith Hill was continuously in sight and in the sunshine, revealed by a clearing in the trees on the ridge. Somehow comforting. St Margaret’s church, Ockley. St Peter and St Paul, Ewhurst. Cranleigh styles itself the biggest village in England. I didn’t like the high street, disfigured by all the usual chain stores, nor the leisure centre and scrappy playground at the end of a tarmac cul-de-sac. Here the 30 mile long muddy Downs Link path comes to a temporary end, obliterated by a shopping centre. But…

But walk back along the sports centre track to Knowle Lane, turn left, and in a hundred yards you come to a gap in the hedge on the right. Walk through it and this is what you see.

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park is a white Victorian mansion, built on a commanding bluff, overlooking miles of farmland to the distant North Downs, now converted into a care and retirement home. The walk skirts the edge of the grounds with magnificent views in every direction.

view of Knowle Park

view of Knowle Park

Reluctantly you leave the views behind upon joining Alfold Road, stroll along a few hundred yards before turning down a gravel drive to the impressive Utworth Manor. Through a gate into fields, across an old wooden bridge and you reach the lazy Wey and Arun canal, built in the 1810s and abandoned as long ago as 1870, lined with trees, a haven for wildflowers and a wonderful walk.

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

Everywhere I saw red campion, little blue germander speedwell, greater stitchwort and – a flower new to me – ground ivy. After half a mile the canal ends and becomes the dry moat for a farmhouse. You cross an ancient brick bridge decorated with lichen, and squelch through boggy fields to a fine timbered house, Great Garson.

Great Garson

Great Garson

In a pond I saw marsh marigolds and next to it red and purple orchids. The drive brings you back to Alfold road, open views of wide fields, with a little verge of bluebells, beneath an English summer sky…

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

…and then into bluebell woods lining Lion’s Lane, a half a mile ambling track through old woods. Across a few grassy fields belonging to Snoxhall Farm, and up steps onto the embankment which formerly carried the Cranleigh to Guildford railway. Closed in the 1960s this now forms a long straight section of the Down Links path. Half a mile of ferns and dog violets and you’re back in Cranleigh.

Cycling back to Ockley station, I was struck by this very red example of Surrey architecture, note the decorative brickwork and hanging tiles. It was not a rich man’s house, which made the effort which had clearly gone into building and decorating it all the more striking.

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

For photos of the flowers I saw on this walk, go to English Wild Flowers.

Walk: Albury Park

7 May 2012

Just as I stepped off the train at Clandon it started to rain. I thought I’d figured a neat short cut to Albury without quite realising it involved cycling over the North Downs. In the rain. With the wind in my face. Still it was downhill on the other side to Silent Pool, where I locked the bike and strolled through the Victorian village of Albury, all decorated brick, mock Tudor chimneys and – if you looked closely enough – wild flowers in the rain.

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Up the hillside to the Victorian church of St Peter and St Paul. Strange how ugly Victorian churches can be. A pile of red bricks surrounded by dismal cracked flagstones, it felt like a factory or a workhouse. Reminded me of the horrible brick church in the village where I grew up, Chavey Down. And the vast empty barn of a church round the corner from me, St Thomas’s, Streatham Hill. But in the rainy churchyard there were primroses and cowslips.

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter's church, Albury

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter’s church Albury

Up a deep muddy country lane in the rain to Albury Warren, conifer woods at the top, then through a gate into the 150 acre grounds of Albury Park, still dominated by  its Victorian mansion, the hillside landscaped with rhododendrons, and more flowers: I saw goose grass, dog’s mercury, white dead nettle, archangel, scads of dandelions but not many bluebells.

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Finally, I escaped the rain in the historic Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. This used to be the heart of the village till the early Victorian landowner turfed the villagers out, rebuilding their village a mile to the West. That explains why modern Albury is so Victorian in feel, and explains the horrible ‘new’ Albury church he built for them. He let the original medieval church slowly decay, till it was saved and restored in the 1920s and is now open to visitors, bare empty inside, except for a rare medieval wall painting – of St Christopher – and the florid family chapel designed by Augustus Pugin.

William Oughtred was rector here for 50 years in the 17th century. Who he? The leading mathemetician of his day who invented the slide rule in 1622, introduced the ‘x’ symbol for multiplication, and was tutor to Sir Christopher Wren. All that and a sermon every Sunday!

Moreover, Robert Malthus, the man who invented the gloomy Malthusian economics which dominated Victorian England, wrote his famous book here, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. It’s well worth reading in order to grasp the impact it had over the entire succeeding century. It was one spur for the drafting of the Poor Laws which led to the Victorian Workhouses which Dickens so railed against, and which Albury church so balefully reminded me of.

Malthus’s impact was felt not only here but in Britain’s Imperial colonies. In his wonderful book on Kipling, Charles Allen points out that it was the insistence of the Viceroy to India, Lord Lytton, appointed by Disraeli, that doctrinaire free market and Malthusian principles were followed during the famines of the later 1870s – directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians from starvation – that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress and the beginnings of the struggle for independence. Malthus hovered over all Victorian thought like the threat of nuclear annihilation dominated the later 20th century…

England has such depth, such resonance.  All this history and significance packed into a little stone building by a tiny gurgling stream (the ‘river’ Tilling). And the pretty flowers, blowing all around in the steady English rain…

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Flowers

Every walk I try to identify one new wild flower. In the Lakes I was struck by the hosts of not-yet-flowered bluebells, their shiny green leaves like a carpet of seaweed beneath the trees; the equally long floppy bright green leaves of ramsons or wild garlic, bulging pods about to burst into ragged white flower; and the minty, toothed leaves and almost invisible flowers of dog’s mercury. Some herb robert was flowering in cracks and crannies of the dry stone walling.

And tucked into the wet nooks down by the beck were plentiful clumps of golden saxifrage, looks like a euphorbia, but the leaves are tougher, rubberier. A shy, retiring, sweet little English flower.

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria

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