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



Dulwich Picture Gallery

Until Sun Sep 21 2014

  • Winifred Nicholson

    'Cyclamen and Primula', c1922-3

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

    Winifred Nicholson
  • Alfred Wallis

    'Four Luggers and a Lighthouse', 1928

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

    Alfred Wallis
  • Alfred Wallis

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

    Private Collection / ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

    Alfred Wallis
  • Ben Nicholson

    'Cornish Port', c1930

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

    Ben Nicholson
  • Ben Nicholson

    'Jamaique', c1925

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

    Ben Nicholson
  • Christopher Wood

    'Herring Fisher’s Goodbye', 1928

    Private Collection

    Christopher Wood
  • Christopher Wood

    'Anemones in a Cornish Window', 1930

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

    Christopher Wood
  • William Staite Murray

    'Vortex', c1926-9

    © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

    William Staite Murray

Winifred Nicholson

'Cyclamen and Primula', c1922-3

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

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" Love it!"

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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