Born in to an artistic family in Denham, Buckinghamshire in 1894 Ben Nicholson was the son of artists William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. In 1896 the Nicholson family moved to London where Ben was educated at the Tyttenhangar Lodge Prepatory School in Seaford before becoming a boarder at the Gresham’s School for boys in Holt, Norfolk. Ben Nicholson began his training as an artist in London at the Slade School of art, where he studied from 1910 – 1911, then from 1912 to 1914 he travelled between France, Spain and Italy.
In 1920 Nicholson married is first wife, painter Winifred Roberts to whom he had three children, two sons, Jake and Andrew and a daughter Kate, who also became a painter. From 1923 Ben and Winifred split their time between England and Switzerland spending their winters in the southern Swiss town of Lugano and the rest of the year was divided between Cumberland, where they made their home for that decade and London While In London following an exhibition with his wife Winifred he was invited to join the 7 & 5 Society, he was made chairman of the society in 1926.
Nicholson’s early paintings were still-lifes influenced by the works of his father but then after his first solo show at the Twenty-one gallery he began experimenting with abstract painting influenced by Synthetic Cubism which he implied in all his works thereafter. His works throughout the 1920s were of deceptively simple table top still-life’s and landscapes painted in Switzerland, Cumberland and Cornwall, making his first visit there in 1928.
While visiting France in 1932 and 1933, Nicholson became familiar with the works of artists such as Hans Arp, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder who had settled in Paris in the 1920s. Nicholson was successful in fusing the European trends into a new style that would become identified as his own.
He made these visits to Paris with Barbara Hepworth; Winifred and Ben were divorced in 1938 a break up that was brought on by his growing relationship with Wakefield born sculptor. Hepworth had kids to Nicholson in 1934, three triplets and after his divorce in 1938 she would become his second wife.
Together they moved to Cornwall in 1939 and in 1943 he joined the St. Ives society of artists. Following the Second World War Nicholson lost faith in the ‘utopian promise of geometric abstraction’ and resumed painting landscapes adding colour to his abstract reliefs to emphasize the fundamental unity between nature and abstraction. Hepworth and Nicholson were divorced in 1951.
Throughout the 1950s he achieved international recognition as an artist through a series of awards which included the first Guggenheim International Painting Prize in 1956 and the International Prize for Painting at the São Paulo Biennale in 1957. From 1954 – 1961 retrospective exhibitions of his work were held throughout Europe including shows at the Venice Biennale and Tate Gallery and in several cities in the USA in the 60’s and 70’s.
Nicholson married his third wife, German photographer Felicitas Vogler in 1957 and the two moved to Ticino in Switzerland in 1958 where he again began to concentrate on painted reliefs. In 1968 Queen Elizabeth awarded him the O.M. (Order of Merit) and in 1971 after the end of his third marriage he moved back to England where he died in London in 1982 at the age of 87.
Researching this Artist
I used many different websites researching this artist as the information I found was confusing and contradictory, with information differing from site to site and so I chose to gather information from the websites of establishments that I found out at shown his work, The British Council, Tate Gallery and the Guggenheim comparing the details with the biography www.oxfordartonline.com.
I have never heard of Ben Nicholson before although his second wife Barbara Hepworth is very familiar to coming from Wakefield I have seen her works in West Bretton (Yorkshire Sculpture Park). Since I have been living in Thailand they have opened the Hepworth Center in her name in my home town so it was interesting to read about their relationships, both personal and professional.
Although I have never heard of the artist by name before, I did recognise a few his works, including 1934 (Still Life – Birdie), 1933 (Study of a Head) and 1932 (Head and Mug in a Greek Landscape).
Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on a Cornish Landscape?
I think the answer to this lies in the above text where it says Nicholson ‘resumed painting landscapes and added colour to his abstract reliefs to show the fundamental unity between nature and abstraction’. Which maybe reflected in what he said in a letter from Nicholson to Patrick Heron (9 February 1954) ‘All the “still lifes” are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me.’