Winifred Nicholson: The early flowering of the first Mrs N

Winifred Nicholson’s work, elbowed out by abstraction, deserves a second look

When British artists and taste-makers collaborated on the groundbreaking 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow, at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, a lot of thought went into the make-up of the group that would show a new form of art. And two names were voted out: Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Since the Thirties, the pair had been such a dominating force in British modern art that only excluding them was going to push painting and sculpture into new and collegiate areas, notably pop.

But Nicholson and Hepworth’s status as art royalty both as a couple – they met in 1930, married in 1938 and parted in 1951 – and individually, overshadows an earlier artistic and domestic partnership for Nicholson that is revisited in an exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery in south London. Art and Life 1920-1931, featuring work produced during the marriage of Nicholson to Winifred Roberts, looks at the early influences on the artist who would arguably reach his peak with the white reliefs of the mid-Thirties, and at the young wife who not only travelled with him, discovering European art and recording the same scenes, but also forged relationships with artists in Paris that were to transform British art.

Ben and Winifred Nicholson both came from comfortable and distinguished homes with strong artistic leanings. Ben’s father, William, was a respected painter, his grandfather a Tory MP. Winifred Roberts’s aristocratic mother was a gifted amateur artist, her father a prominent Liberal MP. Through her mother’s connections she had access to the great private art collection at Castle Howard where, as a child, she saw the work of the British titans Gainsborough and Reynolds and Italian masters including Titian.

That she came face to face with this great colourist at an impressionable age may account for her own fixation with colour, where her young husband was seeing form. Jovan Nicholson, curator of the exhibition and grandson of the couple, recalls that the pair were, on one occasion, equally transfixed by a Picasso painting: “She talks about a green ‘as swift as a viper’. Ben calls it one of the most real paintings he had ever seen.” Frustratingly, for it holds a key to the couple’s thinking, scholars cannot agree on which picture so inspired them.

That flash of green, however, lights the way into the work of Winifred, whom her grandson believes to be unfairly neglected: “There have been a number of theories why she hasn’t been included in the story [of British Modernism].... There have been exhibitions when she should have had pictures included and didn’t. I don’t know why.”

Two elements, arguably, put Winifred in the shade. One was Ben’s relationship 10 years into the marriage with Hepworth, whose sculpted abstract forms were to become such a landmark in British art history that they were as at home on shop corners (Winged Figure at John Lewis on Oxford Street) as they were in private or public collections.

Cyclamen and Primula (circa 1922) by Winifred Nicholson  

The other element was Winifred’s penchant for flowers. Despite painting alongside Ben for many years – he destroyed this early work, suggesting, writes Sebastiano Barassi in the exhibition’s very fine catalogue, that she was the better artist at this stage – Winifred’s favourite subject matter was not obviously innovative. Although she experimented with the new, abstract, art, while always using colour over form to make a statement, her favourite subject sounds traditional: “I like painting flowers,” she said simply. “I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paintbrush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower … to me they are the secret of the cosmos.”

But Winifred’s flowers are not merely decorative, nor are they botanical records. They are, to her, attractively unruly, and thrillingly coloured. She particularly loves the way that magenta makes a mixed bunch leap into life. Her favourite composition – flowers in a vase (the pot itself probably made by William Staite Murray, whose work is also in the show) – on a windowsill, with a landscape behind, created challenges of plane and perspective – the same things that Ben was looking at, and that had absorbed the early Italian artists whose work they saw on their travels as newly-weds.

The couple met in the summer of 1920 and married within months. They headed for the mainland of Europe, seeing great work in colour, not just in monochrome engravings, youthfully confident in their critical analysis: “Paris is choc a block full of 2nd rate, 3rd, 4th 5th … & 198th rate modern work,” Winifred wrote home. “Modigliani is good example of No. 2. Derain, Picasso, Matisse have had the impertinence to contribute a no. of No. 1’s. Dufy … is fairly moderate 7th rate. But they (bar select few) have all lost the p[oin]t of painting & are ‘modern’, dated, local. It is all froth. And certainly lack one of the main fundamentals which is SINCERITY.” But they were captivated by the early Italian masters, especially Giotto, Gozzoli, and Piero della Francesca.

By the late Thirties, Winifred’s well-trained eye would spot a winner. In Paris, she befriended Nahum Gabo, Jean Hélion, and Giacometti, and purchased work by all of them. And although Ben is perceived as the great champion of Mondrian, it was Winifred who was the first British collector to buy a Mondria piece, and it was she who accompanied the artist to Britain from Paris in 1938.

“I have seen his eyes when he looked at fields out of the train window,” she wrote of the great champion of geometric abstraction. “He said that it was the passing of the verticals of telegraph poles across that horizontal of the horizon that he was watching with such eagerness. But was it? … Was it the sunset radiance over the spring green meadows?”

Possibly not: Mondrian hated green. But Winifred was vigorous in her defence of plants: “They know more geometry than Pythagoras,” she wrote, “and all sunflowers practice mathematical law in the spiral arrangement of their seeds .... They will show how to turn light into rainbows.”

‘Life and Art’, Dulwich Picture Gallery (dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk), from Wednesday to 21 Sept

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders