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January 27, 2009

Ben Nicholson (1894–1982)

Ben Nicholson: Artist (1894-1982)

Ben Nicholson by Humphrey Spender

Ben Nicholson by Humphrey Spender


I have been excited that on of Britain's most important 20th painters Ben Nicholson has got a retrospective exhibition. "A Continuous Line" has opened earlier this month at the Tate St. Ives - a gallery I love.  The exhibition continues until the first week of May and offers an excellent opportunity to develop ones knowledge and ideas about the enormously influential St. Ives artists. Take a drive into the surrounding countryside afterwards to discover what influenced the abstract landscapes.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson was born in 1894, in Eight Bells, Denham, Buckinghamshire, England. Ben Nicholson's father was the artist William Nicholson, and his mother was the Scottish painter Mabel Pryde. He studied, for a short time, at the Slade School 1910-11. His first solo show was held at the Adelphi Gallery in London in 1922. Nicholson spent several years in Cumbria with his first wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson. The couple bought in 1923 Banks Head, a 17th-century farmhouse built over a mile castle on Hadrian's Wall. In 1939 he moved to Cornwall:

"Despite the geographical distance between Cornwall and Cumberland, both locations shared certain characteristics that were attractive to Nicholson at this time, to his taste and disposition and to the development of his painting...Both possessed a distinct quality of remoteness, an important sense of distance, far from the excessively cultivated and commercial metropolitan centre and from the predictably picturesque 'guidebook' imagery of the countryside popular in the years following the end of the Great War." (Ysanne Holt catalogue essay 2008)

Nicholson Coldfell 1922

Ben Nicholson: Coldfell (1922). Painted during his time in Cumbria with Winifred

From the early 1930s his work became increasingly abstract, geometrical and austere. In 1937 he was editor of Circle An International Survey of Constructivist Art.   From 1939 to 1958 lived in Cornwall. In 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Nicholson and his family moved from London to St. Ives where they stayed initially with Adrian Stokes in Little Park Owles in Carbis Bay. Nicholson became a mentor and advocate for many of the younger artists living in the area, particularly Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and John Wells. In 1943 he joined the St. Ives Society of Artists. He left it to found the Penwith Society in 1949, with Herbert Read as president.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth

Ben Nicholson & Barbara Hepworth

It wasn't until the 1950s that Nicholson won international attention. In 1952 he took first prize at the Carnegie International Art Exhibition in Pittsburgh. In 1954 he won the Ulissi Prize at the Venice Biennale. The next year he won the Governor of Tokyo's Award and was honored by the Belgian Art Critics in Paris. In 1956 he won the Guggenheim International Award.

In 1968 he received the British Order of Merit (OM).

Nicholson was married three times: firstly to Winnifred Roberts (married 5 November 1920 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London; divorced 1938) with whom he had two children, a daughter Kate in July 1929 (who later became an artist herself) and a son Andrew in September 1931. His second marriage was to fellow artist Barbara Hepworth (married 17 November 1938 at Hampstead Register Office; divorced 1951) with whom he had a son Simon in 1934 and third to Felicitas Vogler, a German photographer (married July 1957; divorced 1977).

Nicholson Painted Relief

Nicholson Painted Relief: Scottish National Gallery

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art owns a fine collection of paintings and prints by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), one of the leading British artists of the twentieth century. That collection has now improved and expanded dramatically, thanks to an extraordinary bequest made by Felicitas Vogler, Nicholson's third wife. Vogler was a celebrated photographer, holding a major exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in 2006. Following her death later that year, she left the Gallery a superb collection of Nicholson's work, including ten paintings and carved reliefs and twenty prints and drawings. These works now join the works already belonging to the Gallery to form an outstanding collection of Nicholson's art, ranging from the early 1920s to the 1980s. The whole collection is on show in this new display, occupying the top floor of the Dean Gallery.

Nicholson Green Goblet blue square

Nicholson: Green Goblet Blue Square (1961). One of earliest paintings after moving to Switzerland

Ben Nicholson Retrospective Exhibition Tour

Abbot Hall is the opening venue of the first major exhibition of Ben Nicholson in the UK for over fourteen years. Curated by Chris Stephens, Head of Displays at Tate Britain and a leading expert on the art of St Ives from the 1940s-60s, the show focuses on the artist’s years in Britain from 1922 to 1958. This new exhibition highlights those periods that earlier exhibitions have marginalised and reveals a view of Ben Nicholson quite different from the established one.

The exhibition looks at the landscapes of the 1920s, including works painted in Cumberland where he lived with his first wife, Winifred. It includes his time in St Ives, Cornwall during World War II, when his abstract and landscape works became central to the establishment of the modernist art community, alongside his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The final section of the show focuses on the Cubist still-lifes made by Nicholson between 1945 and 1958.

nicholson Still Life 1945

Nicholson: Still Life 1945 in the Continuous Line Exhibition

This project has evolved through a unique collaboration between Abbot Hall, De La Warr Pavillion ,Tate St Ives and draws on the Tate collection and the Ben Nicholson archive, as well as loans from major public institutions in the UK. Many of Nicholson’s finest works are still in private collections, and a number of these rarely seen pieces are included. There will not be a London venue. One of the central ideas behind the project is to link the works to be shown in a different context where each of the venues has a particular relevance.


Ben Nicholson at Kettle's Yard Cambridge

Guardian 2008: Another Look at Ben Nicholson

Abbot Hall: Nicholson Retrospective

Independent review of the retrospective

Tate Collection of Ben Nicholson

Further Reading

Norbert Lynton: Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press

Chris Stephenson: Ben Nicholson, Tate Publishing

Peter Khoroche: Ben Nicholson, Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries

Buying Titian for the Nation: Diana and Actaeon

Buying Titian for the Nation: Diana and Actaeon

Emin delivers titian Petition

Tracey Emin delivers a petition to save Titian masterpieces for the nation

Diana and Actaeon 1

The sale of Diana and Actaeon by Titian for £50 million is being negotiated with the Duke of Sutherland Here the painting is at the National Gallery in London being shown for 4 weeks as a part of the fund raising exercise. The visit was later extended as it was so successful.

Late August 2008 the Duke of Sutherland declared to the National Gallery of Scotland that he wished to sell Diana and Actaeon as well as another Titian Diana and Callisto at a later date. The Duke of Sutherland was prepared to accept £50 million for each of them. It is likely that they could fetch three times the amount on the open market. now if this sounds like a financial bargain for the nation one must remember that the tax payable on an open market sale would run into tns of millions of pounds.

As argued elsewhere the financial concerns should be set to one side, the key issue here is the dvelopment of cultural citizenship within the nation which requires high quality cultural products and services in order to achive this. Clearly the opportunity to acquire some 'Old Masters' by a canonical painter is extremely rare. The reason the Damien Hirsts can command such high prices is because there is a shortage of older work available for collectors. Any painting like this must be considered as an investment in lots of different ways. It is an investment in education for a start so that spurious argument about spending the money on schools is vitiated.

Having high quality art by canonical artists gnerates long-term wealth creation through tourism as anybody going around the main London galleries could hardly fail to notice. These visitors create a lot of tax as well as create a lot of employment. Nevertheless there are a lot of retrograde attitudes out there with many coming from those who ought to know better:

"Very few people will ever have heard of Titian, many will have thought he was an Italian football player. What is the point of wasting this money in this way?"(Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme, Mr Davidson, the member for Glasgow South West)

Davidson's comment is both patronising and at the same time a strong indictment of the educational system!

Diana and Actaeon 2

Diana and Actaeon by Titian

The Scottish National Gallery

Scot Nat Gall Complex

The Scottish National Gallery Complex

Scot Nat Gall

The Scottish National Gallery

At time of writing it sems that the deal is going through there are just some loose ends to be tied up so fingers crossed! This acquisition can only be of long-term benefit to the nations and their citizens.


BBC News Story on Sales of Titian

The Art Fund gives £1 million to Titian Fund

Scottish Executive gives £17.5 million towards Titian. The Independent

Lubbock in Independent: Is Titian's Painting Worth Saving?

Andrew Graham-Dixon on keeping the Titians

Titian Fundaraising Sparks Political Row - BBC

Tracey Emin on Saving the Titians -BBC Interview

The Fight for Turner's Blue Rigi

March 25, 2007

JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi

The successful fight for JMW Turner's: The Blue Rigi

Turners Blue Rigi

I was very pleased to find out this morning from my email box that JMW Turner's The Blue Rigi has been bought by the Tate Gallery. What gave me special pleasure was that I had bought 6 brushstrokes through the special National Art Fund innovative online campaign.

OK my life as an art collector extends into the virtual rather than the real and aside from interesting issues as to whether I've got some virtual  art which is tradeable inside Second Life the fact that people had to be charitable at all in order to ensure that this painting stayed within the UK and available for public contemplation is a serious cultural policy issue. There is no way I would have contributed to a Tracy Emin piece or Damien Hurst piece. Amusing? Yes. Intellectually challenging? Possibly but rarely. Overhyped? Yes. Overvalued? Yes. How can we reasonably compare to Turner arguably the very first modernist painter and one who was up on the latest theories of colur (Goethe) and pereception (developing psychological theories) in his day producing valuable paintings which stand the test of cultural time.  

In recent years  it has become especially trendy amongst fans of 'New' Labour to spend their time in a typically postmodern way of using culture as an instrument of economic and social policy. Forget 'Art for Art's Sake' they sneer, don't be judgemental about content, let populism rule, what the audience think they want is all right just providing we can make money out of it and we can sit around getting audiences to evaluate their experience for the marketing people. This of course ignores issues of ideology and the construction of dominant cultural discourses.

Instrumentalism & Cultural Policy

Well, taken from this entirely instrumentalist perspective which at a theoretical level appears to subsume Walter Benjamin's notion of removing the auratic aspect of Art with a capital A and turn it into an excuse for commerce; paintings of the quality of Turner's Blue Rigi are fundamental to the success of megapolises such as London and New York. You can hardly hear a native English accent in central London in summer and now increasingly all year around. Students and tourists flock to London because it is a cultural capital of the World. those who have considerable cultural capital and wish to invest more in this go to London and its galleries as well as enjoying the signature architecture which is an iconic must for the contemporary global city fighting for the tourist trade, and in the case of London adding value to attract global financiers to work in London. Great art therefore can be seen as underpinning the attraction of London as a place to live and work. A process which has rather neatly been defined as Brandscaping.


Even from the pitiful perspective of 'anything goes' providing it makes money New Labour should have the made the funds available to keep this 'high added value' sort of art without all sorts of quangos having to chase around for funding which is small fry at the national level. The irony is that City councils elsewhere in the country are beginning to sell of their own smaller art treasures because they can't afford to run their education and social care systems.

The January Warwick podcast by Munira Mirza is a welcome antidote to this sort of thinking. Hopefully it marks the beginnings of a change away to a more balanced view of culture than extreme populist postmodernism. this is not the same as saying that the cultural popular should be ignored. There is an issue of definitions as well as issues of quality. 

Taxation & Paying for Art

Why these mainly Northern councils have no money when the Chancellor emphasises 10 years of apparently unbroken economic growth is an interesting question. It is also hard to disagree with the Tories when they rail against the levels of taxation. Even they can justifiably note that poorer people are being hit by the tax system, just funding poorer people still.

At risk of slipping into anecdote most of my monthly outgoings are in the form of taxation. As a couple we spend over £120 per week on petrol. Most of this cost is tax in one form or another. Furthermore as my wife is currently a full-time student in receipt of a government loan she is effectively paying twice for her education as a huge proportion of the loan goes on this fuel every term. On top of that the course is materials and equipment heavy which attracts the regressive 17.5% VAT. At the same time I receive no tax relief and currently must commute a long way to work which is in the underpaid Tertiary education sector. We do not even have parity with school-teachers!

Three months of longish distance commuting shows that many people are in similar position . The key point here is not an individual whinge, it is to emphasise the huge tax burden that ordinary people are paying either to get to work or to get an education. Yet at the same time our cultural citizenship is being eroded. Why on earth should I or anybody else have to respond to begging bowl campaigns to maintain or improve an economically / culturally / socially valuable  infrastructure in which content (the Art itself is central). Quite obviously I already do this through the disproportinate tax system. It is a benighted cultural policy framework increasingly based upon narrow accountacy discourse which creates this situation.

It is now the case that  that the National Lottery which is a 'voluntary' tax on the very poorest who have had little training in probability theory. The fact that the Government has this at all is shameful. The fact that our culture is dependent upon the wheel of fate rather than a properly funded policy framework is despicable. The fact that a large amount of this extremly dubious tax is now being siphoned away from the cause it is promoted for supporting to the Olympic extravaganza is dihonest and exploitative beyond belief. The plain fact is that almost nobody funding the Olympic games through their gambling will be able to afford a seat in the stadium highlights the point. 

As taxpayers we are seemingly paying a lot for 'cultural consultants' and a range of parastites positioning themselves around policy honeypots while a cultural drain continues in line with the general opening up of wealth divides in the era of post-neo-liberal cultural-economic policies. They are the real vultures of culture! 

The Olympic Games  and the funding of it is a 21st century version of Roman gladitorial contests. Wage slaves are funding the pleasures of the rich. As a crumb they can sample the pleasures second hand through the Mass Media. Of course we can buy into the regeneration argument and I'm sure most of the population in the UK feel that the Millenium Dome bonanza was an excellent way of spending vast amounts of money rather than bulding say twenty art galleries the cost of the one in Wasall and some art to put in it! the citizens of Athens would probably agree as they pass the crumbling and unloved Olympic Stadium built for the last Olympics. Interestingly the tourist population is there for the genuine cultural heritage which seems to show that quality will out!

Cultural Citizenship 

It is time that we fought for a system of governance which values and promotes notions of cultural citizenship which should have at its heart the accessibility of canonical cultural works - This opens up a can of worms on canons but that is another debate.  This needs to be thought of on a global basis just as any other facet of advanced citizenry should be.  I want people from all over the world to be able to experience great art. The nature of individual paintings means that people usually have to travel to it unlike music which is more accessible.

I resent being arm-twisted to pay more for what as a state the UK should pay for anyway and what I consider I have more than paid for through my taxes. If I give money or goods it usually goes to Oxfam or global development campaigns and that is how I prefer to keep it.

When it comes to the arts and culture I would also prefer a wider European cultural policy perspective to be developed. Small accession states such as Lithuania inherited quite a good cultural infrastructure in terms of the numbers of galleries and museums and performance spaces.  These countries  became impoverished through neo-liberal approaches to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Now they should be having more support to rebuild the good aspects of cultural citizenship which were previously available under Soviet rule.  Cultural citizenship and a common cultural sense of 'Europeaness' is more likely to succeed in uniting  Europe at the level of the quotidian than highly abstract constitutional structures which have little to do with everyday European citizens. In brief culture is far more valuable than just simple accountancy benchmarks. It is where it is hardest to define that perhaps it becomes most valuable in terms of geist

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