Monday, 15 October 2012

Winifred Nicholson: Music of Colour

Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils & Bluebells in a
Norman Window, 1950s (Kettle's Yard)
Walking around Kettle's Yard, the former Cambridge home of art collector HS (Jim) Ede, a few years ago I was struck by an expansive painting of a beach and the sea beyond. The picture was wide and soft and strangely luminous and, since there are no labels at Kettle's Yard (the house, I mean, not the gallery), rather mysterious. I found myself in the awkward and unusual position of having no-one to tell me whether or not I should take this picture seriously.

All I could do was look. The brushwork was loose and flowing, as if the artist had liked the scene very much and enjoyed painting it. In turn I found myself enjoying the muted colours and the lively brushwork. It seemed an original kind of vision. Then someone came by and said something about the artist being very good but not well known. I knew the name, Winifred Nicholson, through association with her husband Ben, but I didn't know her as an artist in her own right.

Winifred Nicholson, Sound of Rhum from Isle of Eigg, 1950s
This is hardly surprising, given the lack of opportunity to see her work. While there are stacks of weighty tomes devoted to Ben Nicholson (who left her for Barbara Hepworth in the 1930s), finding a book on Winifred was, until recently, quite a task. Now there is a colourful, spacious monograph by Christopher Andreae, although it's fairly pricey if you're not a fan already. There's also an excellent website, which has some gorgeous reproductions of her work. And, until December, you can see a small selection of her pictures on display at Kettle's Yard Gallery, complete with labels.

Current exhibition at Kettle's Yard Gallery
Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) enjoyed a long, varied and productive career. During the 1920s, a decade traditionally overlooked by historians of British art, she and Ben worked side by side, developing their own response to the modernist revolution and finding inspiration particularly in the landscape around their home at Banks Head in Cumberland. This became, in the words of Christopher Wood, 'a Painter's Place', where visitors included Paul and Margaret Nash, Ivon Hitchens and Wood himself.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape (Sea and Sand), 1926 (Kettle's Yard)
He and Winifred became close friends, yet she tends to be sidelined when the story of Wood, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis is told. The famous 1928 meeting in St Ives comes across as a rather masculine affair, but Winifred was staying there too (as was Wood's delightfully named lover, Frosca Munster). It is arguable that poor doomed Kit Wood was influenced as much by her as by Wallis, and when you look at Ben and Winifred's work from the late 1920s side by side you can see plenty of similarities.

Winifred Nicholson, From Bedroom Window, 1930
'She has probably no equal among modern British painters,' wrote a critic of her 1929 exhibition, 'as a colourist of the most exquisite refinement.'

Two years later she responded to her husband's departure by removing to Paris with their children, there continuing both to paint and to write about her ideas, before returning to Britain shortly before the war. For the rest of her life she would divide her time between her family and her painting, exhibiting regularly in London and enjoying periods of intense creativity and experimentation. Some of the work she painted later in life, especially in Scotland and around Banks Head, is as fresh and luminous as the pictures from the 1920s. Throughout, she maintained a warm, lively correspondence with her former husband and retained an endless fascination for the music of colour.

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1929
Thanks to Winifred Nicholson's estate for allowing me to show these pictures. Copyright of course remains with them. Do have a look at their website.



  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece James - thank you. Yes, I've often wondered at how blatantly she has been left out of Ben Nicholson's creative history. From what I've read of B. Nicholson's time with Hepworth, he seemed to have a problem with her success too so perhaps this is the root of Winifred being sidelined in those early days.

  2. Thanks Murgatroyd... Also has a lot to do with art history being written by men about men!