‘The earth of Cumberland is my earth … I have always lived in Cumberland – the call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of the lonely fells is my mystery, and the sliver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.’
Like many women, Winifred Nicholson is largely known for who she was married to rather than for her ability as an artist. But she was a talented artist and her work deserves to be better known. The latest exhibition at Abbot Hall, curated by her Grandson, Jovan Nicholson, and concentrating on works created in her native county, will hopefully contribute to correcting this.
Born Winifred Roberts in the north of the old county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria following local government re-organisation in the 1970’s), her Grandmother, Rosalind Howard, known as the ‘Radical Countess’, was involved in Liberal politics, Temperance reform and Women’s suffrage. Her father was a Liberal MP who served as a member of the Asquith government.
After studying art in London she married a fellow artist and after travelling to Italy returned to live in Cumberland, at Bankhead near Hadrian’s Wall. He was something of a philanderer and in the early 1930’s started a relationship with another artist who he later married and then deserted for yet another woman.
Winifred continued to live in Cumberland, at Bankshead and then at her parent’s home, Boothby, later returning to Bankshead. She also travelled in Europe, living in France for a number of years in the 1930’s and met Mondrian, Giacometti, Kandinski, Alexander Calder and other artists.
The exhibition, though, concentrates on her time in Cumberland and is divided broadly into three sections based on where she was living: Bankshead in the 1920s and 1930s, Boothby and the Lake District post war, and Bankshead again for the last two decades of her life. It includes a significant number of works and also included two vases which feature in some of the paintings on display.
While in Cumberland she developed the style for which she is best known – landscapes painted using a palette of bright, but subdued, pastel colours. She also began to paint a large number of pictures of flowers on window sills with a landscape in the background. There were a significant number of such pictures in the exhibition.
Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils and Pewter Jug (1953)
These aren’t botanical pictures with precise illustrations of the flowers but are painted in an impressionistic style
As well as views from her two homes, she also got out and about in the Lake District painting landscapes.
Winifred Nicholson, Ullswater,(c1949)
She also spent some time at St Bees and a number of her works were sea views with the Isle of Man in the background.
Winifred Nicholson, Lily of the Valley, St. Bees (1940)
Some of her landscapes included trees and animals. These were largely painted in a naive, childlike style, probably reflecting the influence of Alfred Wallis.
In the last few years of her life she began to make paintings inspired by the use of a prism.
‘I found out what flowers know, how to divide the colours as prisms do, … and in so doing giving the luminosity and brilliance of pure colour
There were some examples in the exhibition, including this one
Winifred Nicholson, Accord (1978)
The exhibition brings together a large number of works produced over a period of some 40 years from a number of sources, including many from private collections. Inevitably, there is some variability in quality, but overall it’s a good survey of her work with many attractive, colourful paintings. And I think the following statement on the Abbot Hall website is about right
Taken as a whole, the paintings in the show feel timeless, depicting Cumberland landscapes that have hardly changed. They are more than just views: they give an indescribable sense of a window opening onto a sunlit morning of endless opportunities.