Ben Nicholson

b. 1894, Denham, UK. d. 1982, London, UK

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Ben Nicholson, Box And Cox, 1947
Ben Nicholson, Box And Cox, 1947

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Ben Nicholson’s (1894-1982) abstract paintings and sculptures are cited as being quintessential examples of British Modernism. He studied at the Slade School of Art, 1910-11. He spent 1912 to 1914 in France and Italy, and was in the United States in 1917-18. He married the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920. After an early career as a representational painter, in particular still life’s following the style of his father, William Nicholson (1872-1949) Nicholson moved into abstraction (his mother Mabel Pryde (1871-1918) was also an artist). In 1931 he divorced to marry fellow artist Barbara Hepworth, to whom he was married until 1951. In the 1930s he visited Paris and the studios of Picasso, Braque, Arp, Brancusi and Mondrian. Nicholson extracted and refined geometric shapes from his representational work and ultimately the world around him, influenced by cubism and constructivism alongside the still life tradition. By the 1930’s his work was at its formal peak, seen most explicitly in his series of white relief works, however this style softened in later years to include traces of the landscape with abstracted elements. He is known for his clean and pared back simplicity, allowing forms, shadows and colour to create drama in elegantly rarefied works of great reserve. This harmony within the work was in reaction and opposition to the social upheaval and anxiety of an era defined by two world wars. The quiet tension between the forms and lines in his work are explicitly anti-intellectual and encourage straightforward formal interpretation.

Box And Cox (1947) is typical of the artist’s modest handmade compositions where the boundary of the work is blurred by the construction of a specially designed frame and mount designed and created by Nicholson. A pale wood frame holds a composition of multiple rectangular shapes, washed in natural tones of white, brown, green and blue. Nicholson offers no vanishing point within the scene, yet the shapes congregate to appear architectural, giving prominence to some through the use of opaque colours. Creating a synergy between the line, colour and shape is paramount for Nicholson; “The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is musical and architectural,” …“Whether this visual relationship is slightly more or slightly less abstract is, for me, beside the point.”

This work was one of the first items to enter the Zabludowicz Collection and apart from when on loan for public exhibition, has hung ever since it’s purchase in the family home. Nicholson won the prestigious Carnegie Prize in 1952, and in 1968 received the British Order of Merit. He is one of the few artists in the collection who are no longer alive, he died on February 6, 1982 in Hampstead, United Kingdom. Today, his works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among many others.