Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-31

  • Art
  • Drawing and illustration
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'Cyclamen and Primula', c1922-3

Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

'Four Luggers and a Lighthouse', 1928

Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

'St. Ives Harbour, Hayle Bar and Godrevy and Fishing Boats', c1932-4

Private Collection / ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

'Cornish Port', c1930

Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS

'Jamaique', c1925

Private Collection / © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

'Herring Fisher’s Goodbye', 1928

Private Collection

'Anemones in a Cornish Window', 1930

© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

'Vortex', c1926-9

© York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

First there were Ben and Winifred, just married, painting the same scenes side by side like proto-modernist peas in a pod. Then along came Christopher, troubled and ambitious, who’d been to Paris to meet Picasso and wanted to be the most famous painter in Britain. Together, Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood made the kind of faltering steps towards modernism that render Britain’s early twentieth-century art history such a pleasant if slightly plodding affair. Throw in some biographical detail, some letters and diary entries, though, and you end up with something far pacier. It’s the type of exhibition-making at which Dulwich excels.

‘Art and Life’ focuses on the 1920s and develops in a series of play-like scenes – geographically, from Lugano and London to Cumberland (now Cumbria) and Cornwall. In Chelsea in 1925 the Nicholsons share everything including a palette: he attempts his first abstract, a stuttering, blocky affair; she paints two vases of flowers on a window sill, the city’s chimney pots receding beyond. It sets a lasting creative template. In Cumberland Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood go out sketching together, trying to reduce the landscape to its bare essentials. All three of them have a go at painting Northrigg Hill seen from Hadrian’s Wall. The results are shown side by side: Winifred’s unfussy version gets my vote.

Of the remaining characters in this tale, while the relatively unknown potter William Staite Murray is given perhaps too much emphasis, the naive painter Alfred Wallis, whom Wood and Ben Nicholson ‘discovered’ in St Ives in the summer of 1928, has never looked so important to the story of British art. Ben Nicholson, in particular, is transformed by Wallis’s directness, his disregard for perspective and rectangular painting supports.

Cornwall marks a high point but also a kind of unravelling of the story. By 1930, Ben and Winifred begin to separate. Even though the gallery texts insist on their enduring friendship, she paints two of their children ‘Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight’ (1931-32) looking so disconsolate in their party hats that you half want to phone the CSA.

When a show bring artists to life so roundly, the galleries are bound to feel haunted. But the ghost here is more of an elephant in the room. Step forward Ben Nicholson’s lover and future second wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, with whom he would become the most famous artist couple in the land. Except she doesn’t. The show leaves the story dangling, with Ben and Winifred in the throes of divorce and Kit Wood jumping under a train at Salisbury station, his talent and ambition unfulfilled. Momentarily, you may feel unfulfilled yourself by this fizzling ending but you’ll leave hungry for the next instalment.

Martin Coomer

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A wonderful exhibition, accompanied by beautiful catalogue, full of new research and information. Love it.

Curated London

For the ten years following their marriage in 1920, the British modernists Ben and Winifred Nicholson clearly influenced each other artistically, as shown in this wide-ranging exhibition curated by their grandson. It also shows the influences on them of three contemporaries - Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray - whom they encountered or painted alongside. Grouped by location, the exhibition includes a number of previously unexhibited or rarely seen works, especially oils by Winifred from private collections.

It's interesting to see a number of works which were obviously painted at the same time by the couple displayed side-by-side. Winifred's subjects comprise mostly flowers in vases; Ben is often more abstract, or more focused on the bigger landscape picture. Ben freely acknowledged that Winifred helped him to understand colour, although the over-riding impression of her early paintings is a rather flat, pale blue-grey tone. Meanwhile, Ben's focus was on form, and you can see that Winifred's use of perspective definitely develops over the period.

If you're not already familiar with his work, the couple's friend Christopher Wood (known as 'Kit' to the Nicholsons) is a revelation. You can see the common themes he embraced with the Nicholsons - beautifully executed vases of flowers, and paintings at the Cornish seaside. There is an amazing portrait of his muse, the Russian emigrée Frosca Munster, which looks more than a little like an early Picasso. He then embraced surrealism with The Parachute and the Zebra (an unusually literal title for a surreal work). Sadly it's one of those stories of an artistic talent burning bright and altogether too fast - he was an opium addict who took his own life in 1930 aged just 29.

As well as the paintings, ceramic works by the avant-garde potter William Staite Murray are displayed throughout the show. While the pots in the earlier rooms are frankly a bit dull, the three displayed in the final gallery are wonderful, including The Bather, a tall thin pot striped white and red in the style of an old-fashioned bathing suit. There's a real sense of progression, as the artist's style develops and his pots become bigger.

The same can't be said for the pictures by Alfred Wallis, a self-taught marine painter. Although he clearly had an influence on the other artists, particularly on Ben and Kit, it's hard to see why. Most of his paintings displayed here are on odd pieces of board using boat paint; these 'primitive' paintings of ships are flat and poorly executed, and certainly aren't my cup of tea (or should that be 'rum'?).

Following the breakdown of their marriage, Winifred moved to Paris and befriended a number of the Parisian artists of the period, developing a new style and a new palette. At the same time, Ben embraced abstraction and moved away from painting to create geometric reliefs, one of which is displayed in the final room. Ultimately, this serves to underline that the exhibition as a whole is a bit of a mixed bag.

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