1945 (still life with mugs) was painted by Ben Nicholson in 1945 and was owned by his friend, supporter and confidante, Helen Sutherland. This pivotal picture dates from the end of the Second World War, from a moment when he was returning to the still life genre, creating crisp and elegant palimpsests in which the abstract idiom he had explored and honed over the previous decades was evident at the same time as, say, cups and bottles. He was using the still life as a springboard for an exploration of compositional harmony. In 1945 (still life with mugs), this is perfectly showcased by the balance between the rigorously-assembled jumble of forms that dominate and activate the heart of this composition, drawing the eye towards the subject matter. This melding of figuration and abstraction built upon his recent landscapes which likewise broke down the visual world into oft-geometric elements, lines, planes and occasional facets of colour, as is the case here; this development resulted in a string of impressive, almost crystalline pictures with vivid bursts of colour painted over the following couple of years, many of which are now in public collections such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, and Tate (see fig. 1).
Helen Sutherland, to whom 1945 (still life with mugs) was sent from Nicholson's home in Cornwall, had met the artist two decades earlier at the home of Constance Lane, another artist. Sutherland impressed Nicholson and his wife Winifred when they first stayed with her. As Winifred recalled, 'She had a cold bath every morning, walked every day to the source of the King Water about 20 miles, lived on nothing but apples, grapes, pineapple and a little lettuce' (Winifred Nicholson, quoted in S.J. Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London, 2000, p. 63). Sutherland was an heiress whose father, Sir Thomas Sutherland, had been the chairman of P. & O., a member of parliament and also one of the founders of HSBC. Despite this, most of Sutherland's wealth actually came from her mother's family: her father, the quintessential Victorian, decided that she had already inherited enough by the time he died and left most of his own wealth to charity. Sutherland, who had been married near the beginning of the Twentieth Century in a relationship that was not to last, had nonetheless been introduced to a sparkling society of intelligentsia.
While living her own independent life, first at a home called Rock Hall and later at Cockley Moor, whither 1945 (still life with mugs) was sent, Sutherland had begun to immerse herself in the world of beauty. Initially she had focused on disparate older objects including works by Courbet and Maillol, but soon came to be fascinated by living artists with whom she could have contact. Of these, Nicholson was the most important to her - and her collection of his work was to become the most important in the world. In total, at one point or another, she owned over fifty of his works, several of which are now in public collections, as is the work by Piet Mondrian that she acquired in the late 1930s, partly under his influence and partly under that of her great friend, Nicolete Gray.
Sutherland provided invaluable support to Nicholson over the years, both in financial terms with the loans, gifts and purchases - which she carefully portioned out so as to avoid the dependence of 'patronage' - and in personal terms. While she was a supporter of his first wife Winifred Roberts, and later of Barbara Hepworth, she was nonetheless able to remain his friend. It is a reflection of the depth of this bond that her copy of the Herbert Read monograph published on Nicholson a few years after 1945 (still life with mugs) was painted bore the dedication from the artist: 'For Helen, whose understanding and encouragement of the work has meant so much, with all love, Ben' (Nicholson, quoted in F. Spalding, 'Helen Sutherland, Patron, Collector and Friend of Ben Nicholson', pp. 480-88, The Burlington Magazine, no. 1324, vol. 155, July 2013, p. 480).
We are very grateful to Sir Alan Bowness for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.