Still life

Ben NICHOLSON: artist

Not On Display

About the work

Ben Nicholson's father was the famous painter Sir William Nicholson and his mother was also a painter. Born in Buckinghamshire, he attended the Slade School briefly but was dissatisfied with the style of painting then encouraged in England. For six years, until 1918, he travelled abroad, doing little painting but becoming aware of the developments of cubism and abstraction.

His first wife, Winifred, an instinctive painter, treated subjects freely with a delicate appreciation of colour, imbued with light, and after their marriage in 1920 Nicholson devoted himself to painting, discovering his own response to these elements. Influenced by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, his meeting with the latter in 1933-34 was a revelation to him, the lucid geometric abstractions having a vital impact on his work but not leading to a compulsion to imitate.

Nicholson always retained his individuality, adopting the theories of cubism without becoming completely involved in those methods. As a member of the Abstraction-Creation Group in Paris he participated in its exhibitions and was a link between Britain and modern movements in Europe, being the first English painter to adopt abstraction completely.

His development of White Reliefs was significant and original. Carved in wood or hard board and painted white, they are infinitely subtle, creating illusions of space by the interplay of varying depths, simple circles and rectangles making a composition of pure abstract design. His gifts for construction, texture, linear control and subtle colour exercised with extreme refinement made him one of the great English painters.

Nicholson's second wife was Barbara Hepworth the sculptor, whose work consistently disclosed her absorption with abstract form, and in 1940 the couple settled at St Ives, Cornwall, where they exerted a lot of influence on the groups of artists around them.

Nicholson's passion for cars and sport is reflected in his comment: 'So far from "abstract" art being the withdrawal of the artist from reality (into an "ivory tower") it has brought art once again into common everyday life... the problems dealt with in "abstract" art are related to the interplay of forces and therefore.. any solution reached has a bearing on all interplay between forces: it is related to Arsenal v. Tottenham Hotspur quite as much as to the stars in their courses.'

Innumerable exhibitions of his work have been held including retrospective exhibitions at the Tate Gallery in 1955, 1969 and 1970 and he is represented in major collections throughout the world. He retained affiliations with certain English traditions of painting in his allusive, lyrical manner, but lived in Europe from 1958 at Brissago, Switzerland.

Still life as well as landscape is the basic material for Nicholson's works. In Still Life, 1945 components of jug, glass mug, platter and bottle are discernible, translated into a composite of their sections. An illusion of space is created by the rectangles superimposed on each other slanting at different angles, the dark border an initial statement of position in that space.

The strong notes of colour in the centre hold a definitive accented place related to the interplay of the varying pictures planes in the surrounding linear tracery. This is an excellent example of Nicholson's complete control of organisation and balance with extreme precision, in a statement of the utmost delicacy and elegance.

Ella Fry, Gallery Images, St George Books, Perth, 1984

Reference: Canton Lake and Robert Maillard (eds.), A Dictionary of Modern Painting, Methuen, London, 1956.
Still life
Artist/Maker and role
Ben NICHOLSON: artist
oil, gouache, synthetic polymer paint, ink and pencil on canvas on cardboard
58.4 x 54.5 cm (sight)
78.5 x 74.5 cm (framed)
Credit line
Purchased 1967
The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia
Accession number

This is one of the paintings in our collection.