Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)
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Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)

1919 (Blue Bowl in Shadow)

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)
1919 (Blue Bowl in Shadow)
signed with initials 'BN' (lower left)
oil on canvas
19 x 25 5/8 in. (48.3 x 65 cm.)
Painted in 1919.
with Browse & Darby, London, where purchased by the previous owner in 1982.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 11 November 1999, where purchased by the present owner.
W. Packer, 'Ben Nicholson & Harold Gilman', Financial Times, London, 23 March 1982.
J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson: the years of experiment 1919-39, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard, 1983, p. 10, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson Still Life and Abstraction, Ayr, Scottish Arts Council, Maclaurin Art Gallery, 1985, n.p., no. 6, illustrated.
J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford, 1991, pp. 8, 126, pl. 1.
J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, Martigny, Foundation Pierre Gianadda, 1992, pp. 9, 57, 135, no. 1, illustrated.
J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1993, pp. 14, 101, 205, no. 1, illustrated.
N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, pp. 18-19, 439, pl. 8.
N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 15, pl. 6.
J. McEwan, 'A Minnow Chasing His Tail', The Sunday Telegraph, London, 17 October 1993, p. 8.
W. Januszak, 'Driven by Abstraction', The Sunday Times, 17 October 1993, p. 12.
P. Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: drawings and painted reliefs, Aldershot, 2002, pp. 12, 14, 21, 43, pl. 2.
London, Browse & Darby, British Paintings and Drawings 1880-1960, March - April 1982, no. 16.
London, Browse & Darby, William and Ben Nicholson, Paintings and Drawings 1919-1945, June - July 1983, no. 19.
Ayr, Scottish Arts Council, Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ben Nicholson Still Life and Abstraction, September - October 1985, no. 6: this exhibition travelled to Orkney, Stromess, Pier Arts Centre, June - July 1985; Kirkcaldy, City Museum and Art Gallery, August 1985; and Aberdeen, Artspace, September - October 1985.
Martigny, Foundation Pierre Gianadda, Ben Nicholson Retrospective, November 1992 - January 1993, no. 1.
London, Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, October 1993 - January 1994, no. 1: this exhibition travelled to St. Etienne, British Council, Musee d'Art Moderne, February - April 1994.
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Louise Simpson
Louise Simpson

Lot Essay

Painted at the start of his professional career, 1919 (Blue Bowl in Shadow) is a rare display of Ben Nicholson’s traditional artistic beginnings and the early influence of the subject matter that went on to define his oeuvre.

Untraced until its discovery in 1982, the present work holds an unmistakable resemblance to paintings by the artist’s father, Sir William Nicholson. His mother, Mabel Pryde, was also an artist, and Nicholson grew up surrounded by cultural influences, with visits from his parents’ friends such as Walter Sickert and William Orpen. By the age of sixteen, Nicholson was attending the Slade School of Art in London under the tutelage of Henry Tonks, however, his time at the school was brief. Alongside Paul Nash, Nicholson did not welcome Tonks’ ‘cold discouraging tones’, or his aversion to new movements of Cubism and Post-Impressionism (P. Nash, quoted in A. Bertram, Paul Nash: The Portrait of an Artist, London, 1955, p. 39). Instead, Nicholson spent the majority of his three and a half terms in the Gower Hotel’s billiard rooms before leaving to travel around Europe between 1911 and 1918.

It was not until the death of his mother and brother that Nicholson decided to focus on his art professionally. 1919 (Blue Bowl in Shadow) is a beautifully composed still life; reminiscent of traditional Edwardian paintings that Nicholson was introduced to by his father. The present work focuses on the atmosphere of the setting and elements of illusionism. Nicholson’s mother’s surviving paintings share this theatrical trait, where her children, dressed in rich coloured costumes, stand against a dimly lit or almost black background. This application and understanding of light and dark, that Nicholson grew up with, allows the bowl and frame to become the sole focus of this painting, while the single line of colour for the shelf’s edge provides enough context to ground the objects. The bowl, painted a solid deep blue colour, both emulates the depth of its dark surround while delicately catching the light, to create a three-dimensional appearance and glossy surface quality. The use of chiaroscuro emphasises these elements, with strong contrast from the bright orange frame leaning against the indistinguishable back wall to intentionally disrupt the darkness, while the same colour is abstractly reflected in the bowl’s outer surface. Norbert Lynton comments, ‘There is little to distract the eye from these two objects and the dialogue between them, except that the light falls so as to cut across the lower part of the frame and part of the bowl, making an interesting lit shape. There is much of William’s cunning in this composition, yet it is more economical than any of his pictures, and in this way closer to Whistler than William was willing to come’ (N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 19).

Nicholson respected his father’s sophisticated ability to create still life paintings and acknowledged that the relationship with his parents was a stimulus for this theme in his artwork throughout his life. Fond memories of his mother in the kitchen remained with him and, in contrast to the influence of cubism, he retained a connection to household items as prime subject matter. This stemmed from the many goblets, jugs and bowls amassed by his father – a habit which was passed down to him. His use of white pigment to punctuate dark areas of paint with flashes of light, as seen in the present work, was also an inherited technique.

While 1919 (Blue Bowl in Shadow) is a reflection on Nicholson’s traditional roots, it is important to note the impact this painting had on his progression as an artist. The shallow focus and overlapping of shapes, and off centre positioning of both objects advance his father’s still life paintings, and perhaps draw on the influences of Post Impressionists, Paul Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi. Moreover, the bowl in the present work sits at eye level, so that it sits in profile to the viewer, preventing one from looking inside. The bowl therefore appears more two-dimensional than one first believes and on inspection, the rectangular forms of the frame, also hold little inherent depth. One can associate these characteristics as a departure from tradition, where Nicholson’s later works focused on line and form over depth and tone. The sharp band of light across the frame’s bottom third that then curves to mirror the bowl, creates a further geometrical element to the painting. Although Nicholson appreciated his father’s poetic development to painting, he noted that for him, it was the grounds from which to progress his practice.

A later move to Cumbria in the 1920s with his then wife, Winifred built on this foundation and opened Nicholson’s paintings to a much brighter, more colourful palette leading away from technically precise and illusionistic themes that occupied him in his early career.

Nicholson reflected on the impact both parents had in developing his painting beyond the traditional. He stated, ‘… I owe her absolutely everything. Father’s painting is at its best (in his still lifes and some of his small landscapes) very fine – I admire it v. much – but I don’t think it contains in itself alone the seeds of a new development & without mother’s fierce balancing contribution it would have fizzled out in the following generation’ (B. Nicholson quoted in P. Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: drawings and painted reliefs, Aldershot, 2002, p. 12).

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