‘The studio was white inside and its whiteness plus the light from the sea made sharp colours incredibly intense. Around the walls were stacked canvases; and on a shelf were the bottles and glass goblets which appear in so many of his paintings. His palette was a simple table top’ (David Lewis)
‘The kind of painting I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is both musical and architectural, where the architectural construction is used to express a “musical” relationship between form, tone, colour and whether this visual, “musical” relationship is slightly more or less abstract is for me beside the point’ (Ben Nicholson)
1945 (still life) exemplifies Nicholson’s ability to balance form, colour and space, harmonising two genres; landscape and still life in poetic perfection. With the impending threat of the Second World War, Nicholson's family moved from their home in Hampstead to Cornwall. Nicholson began to turn away from his concentration on geometric forms and abstraction and his works became imbued with elements of the rural Cornish landscape, lyrically suggested here by his use of colour. We can be reminded of the silvery grey skies and sandy beaches of St Ives, the harbours red and white lighthouse, as well as the grey slate and granite landscape of the Penwith Peninsula. From 1943 Nicholson began to set his still-life group on the window sill against a landscape beyond. In a letter to Patrick Heron, dated 9th February 1954, Nicholson commented, ‘All the “still lifes” are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me’ (B. Nicholson, quoted in J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 86). The lightness in still life 1945 is almost symbolic of the end of the war in May 1945; a pressure was lifting and people could now consider life returning to normal. There was no longer the fear of bombings and it was not necessary to black out windows at night. Nicholson delightfully depicts the Cornish skies through the open window and the new sense of release with the vibrant use of yellow at the centre. It perhaps ‘spoke of a sense of place and of belonging that suited a country coming out of war, for which the landscape repeatedly provided symbolic compensation. Perhaps, for him, he had achieved what he himself had said of Wallis’s art: ‘something which has grown out of the Cornish earth and sea, and which will endure’ (B. Nicholson, quoted in ‘Alfred Wallis’, Horizon, Vol. 7, No. 37, January 1943, p. 54).
In 1944 and 1945, Nicholson experimented repeatedly with the space in which still life might be best arranged; against a table top, window sill, or an undifferentiated landscape. In 1945 (still life) the rectangular shape of the table top, with a variable number of legs, is set vertically to the surface of the work. Subsequently the still life objects, tightly contained in the visual centre, are viewed in profile. Formed only by their clean, precise pencil outlines, they are either silhouetted against a coloured backdrop or ghostly emerging from the softly formed table top. The central composition is framed by a generous space of gentle tones, structured by sections of dark shadow that add drama to the composition. Pencil lines keep the eye continuously moving around the outside, with maze like breaks, leading the eye into the still life centre. The entire surface is alive with interchanging blocks of colour, alternating between solid opaqueness and soft translucency, appearing and disappearing forms and geometric lines.
Nicholson’s fondness for geometric simplicity can be stemmed back to a distinct memory he had of his mother, the Scottish painter Mabel Pryde, scrubbing the large rectangular kitchen table during his childhood. When Nicholson studied at the Slade for two terms 1910-11 he cited that he gained more from the billiard table at the Gower Hotel, with its rich green rectangular format, the triangular racks and brightly coloured balls that would bounce around the rectangular frame, than he did from any of the art classes. Later on, Patrick Heron noted that even when everyone around him was tucking into a lunch comprised of meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, Nicholson preferred a neat, geometric lunch of Ryvita topped with a triangle of cheese. It is his intense interest in geometry that lends itself so well to his appreciation of Cubism.
Nicholson visited France in the spring of 1933 where he befriended both Braque and Picasso. Nicholson's paintings of the following months owe an enormous debt to both artists, inspired by their bold modernism and the infinite possibilities of experimenting with Cubism. Nicholson excitedly wrote, ‘This abstract language (of which Picasso has a more profound knowledge than anyone) is a new thing and it is misleading to people who are new to it. Certainly I feel I discover something new about it each week and in my work what I felt to be abstract two months ago hardly seems so at all now and one continues like that’ (B. Nicholson in a letter to Winifred Nicholson, dated 3 May 1933).
To complement and enhance the clean geometric shapes in 1945 (still life), Nicholson ensured that the surface was completely flat, brought about by his preparation of the canvas, which he stretch over a sheet of board. This would provide absolute flatness and a solid surface for him to work on, free from the inescapable give of a canvas when traditionally stretched over a wooden frame. The work is unified by its textured surface, binding foreground and background in one flat plane, laboriously achieved by Nicholson’s characteristic process of painting and scraping already thin paint down to the texture of the board. The areas of strong colour are complimented by the areas of gently built texture.
The description the writer David Lewis living in St Ives gives of Nicholson’s studio and working practices enable us to visualise Nicholson’s working surroundings, methods and art works as one of the same; ‘The studio was white inside and its whiteness plus the light from the sea made sharp colours incredibly intense. Around the walls were stacked canvases; and on a shelf were the bottles and glass goblets which appear in so many of his paintings. His palette was a simple table top.’
1945 (still life) is an important example of Nicholson’s ultimate goal of complete compositional harmony. The fragmented planes beautifully suggest elements of the Cornish landscape, interwoven with the still life, combining manmade and nature in their most basic forms and colours. The viewer is invited to bring their own experiences in a mutual celebration of abstract beauty.
A former owner of the present work, the architectural historian and the author of the first monograph on Ben Nicholson (published by Penguin books in 1948), Sir John Summerson, was married to Elizabeth Hepworth, sister of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, second wife of Ben Nicholson.