Felicitas Vogler

Photographer wife of Ben Nicholson


Felicitas Maria Vogler, photographer: born Berlin 25 April 1922; married 1957 Ben Nicholson (died 1982; marriage dissolved 1977); died Vevey, Switzerland 22 September 2006.

Felicitas Vogler was an outstanding landscape photographer who held exhibitions throughout Europe, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. Her first important show was organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1973; her last was a major retrospective, "World of Light", held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh earlier this year. However, she was probably best known as the third wife of the British artist Ben Nicholson, a fact that frustrated her somewhat.

Small, upright, bright-eyed and perfectly coiffed, Vogler was a formidable woman. She had particular likes (nature, Beethoven, cats, Bendicks mints) and dislikes (contemporary art, urbanisation, noise, art historians) and she expressed her feelings with candour and vigour. She could talk for hours at a time but preferred one-on-one conversations: her friends were kept in such separate compartments that most had never met.

Her strong personality hid a warm, generous and witty character. She made friends easily and helped numerous charities, particularly those involved with music. She had a phenomenal knowledge of literature, philosophy, psychology, music and art, and could provide the Latin name of any plant or tree.

In her youth she had become interested in astrology, palm-reading, spiritualism and mysticism and throughout her life she worked semi-professionally as an astrologist. New friends would invariably be asked their exact time and date of birth. Paradoxically, she refused to divulge her own year of birth, claiming that even her doctor did not know it.

An only child, Felicitas Vogler was born in Berlin in 1922. Her father was a banker and an amateur photographer, while her grandfather was an amateur painter. Felicitas studied psychology at Munich University, completing her doctorate in 1950. She then worked as an arts correspondent for a Munich newspaper and as a researcher for an arts programme on Bavarian Radio.

Her interest in Indian philosophy took her to London in May 1957, where she planned a long trip to India. Profiting from her time in England, she travelled to Cornwall to research a radio programme on the English landscape. A friend suggested she visit the artists' colony at St Ives. Following meetings with Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and others, she met the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who had separated from Ben Nicholson six years earlier.

Hepworth arranged for her to meet Nicholson; before her trip to St Ives, Felicitas Vogler had never heard of him. Their half-hour meeting turned into a five-hour conversation. Nicholson insisted on driving her around Cornwall the next day and followed her when she left for Wales. They were married in London at Hampstead registry office on 13 July, less than two months after first meeting. Vogler never tired of retelling this story, recalling every detail with girlish enthusiasm. It remained the defining point in her life.

Vogler became a British citizen, but was unsettled by the bad weather and claustrophobic social life in St Ives, so in 1958 she and Nicholson moved to Switzerland. They had a house built near the village of Brissago, in the mountains above Locarno: peaceful and secluded, it enjoyed breathtaking views of Lake Maggiore. With Nicholson's encouragement, Vogler took up photography seriously, producing stunning images of the Greek islands, Ticino landscape and Venice. Her photographs were first published in exhibition catalogues of Nicholson's work produced in 1959 and 1960. A major book on her work, The Quiet Eye, was published by Thames & Hudson in 1969. The Victoria & Albert Museum acquired her work.

Like many famous artists' wives, Vogler became the doorkeeper, turning away unwelcome visitors. By 1971 the marriage had lost its joie de vivre. Nicholson was homesick and decided to return to England; Vogler wanted to stay in Switzerland. They divorced in 1977 but remained on good terms, seeing each other regularly until his death in 1982. She also remained in close contact with Nicholson's children and grandchildren.

Nicholson's departure led to a new phase in Vogler's work. Hitherto she had photographed European towns and landscapes, but from the early 1970s she travelled much further afield, to Namibia, Kashmir, New Zealand, Japan, Russia and elsewhere. She concentrated her attention on unspoilt, unpopulated landscapes, printing them in pale, natural colours. Often they show nothing more than the sea, sky or trees. Her compositions invariably bear a strong sense of geometry which bears comparison with Nicholson's work. She had little interest in the technical aspects of photography: her favourite camera was one she found on a bench.

In 1987 she moved to the village of St Légier, near Vevey on Lake Geneva. Her desire for privacy, her dislike of commerce and the long shadow cast by Ben Nicholson, meant that she could never properly promote her own work. She continued working and travelling right up until her sudden death, visiting Scotland twice (including a trip to Orkney) and Tunisia within the space of two months.

There were no children from her marriage to Nicholson and Vogler was forthright in asserting that she did not want any.

Patrick Elliott

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