“Art and Life” in Leeds

Last Sunday we drove over to Leeds to visit the exhibition “Art and Life” currently showing at the Leeds Art Gallery. It’s only on until 12 January and we wanted to catch it before it finishes. Being a Sunday, and Leeds United were playing away, it was relatively quiet on the roads, and the weather was fine, so the journey over the M62 wasn’t bad at all.

The exhibition focuses on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson from 1920-1931. the years when they were married.

Ben and Winifred Nicholson

Ben and Winifred Nicholson in  Westmorland, early 1920s (source)

Like many male artists, Ben was something of a philanderer and in the early 1930’s started a relationship with Barbara Hepworth who he later married and then deserted for yet another woman. Winifred has been very much in the shadow of her ex-husband.  But she was a talented artist and her work deserves to be better known.

Winifred Nicholson, Summer,1928 source here

The exhibition examines their work both individually and in collaboration. The couple became close to Christopher (Kit)Wood during this period and a number of his paintings are included in the exhibition, as are paintings by  Alfred Wallis and pieces by the potter William Staite Murray. The exhibition has been curated in collaboration with art historian and curator Jovan Nicholson, who is Winifred and Ben’s grandson.

There were a large numbers of works exhibited, the majority loaned from Private Collections so this was a good opportunity to see works not normally accessible to the general public. It was a decent sized exhibition but not so big that you felt overwhelmed and "arted out".

During the period covered the Nicholsons had travelled to France and lived in Switzerland, Cumberland and then St Ives, and the structure of the exhibition followed this timeline showing works from each period. So it was possible to see how their styles evolved and also how they influenced each other. There were examples were where both Ben and Winifred (and in one case the Nicholsons and Kit Wood) had painted the same scene, a view looking towards Northrigg hill in Cumbria, and it was interesting to "compare and contrast".

Northrigg Hill

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, c.1926

Christopher Wood Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928 (source)

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Ben Nicholson, Cumberland Farm, 1930

Ben and Winifred, with their son, Jake, are featured in the following picture painted by Kit Wood when they were staying together in St Ives

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Christopher Wood, Fisherman’s Farewell, 1928

The development of their individual styles could also be traced. We could see Ben moving more and more into abstraction, his adoption of an earthy pallet and his use of a "weathered", "scuffed" style, and his penchant for still lives.

Ben Nicholson, Jamaique c.1925 (source here)

Winifred mainly concentrated on landscapes, with some portraits also included in the exhibition. We could also trace her increasing use of bright, but subdued, pastel colours, and how she began to favour painting pictures of flowers on window sills.

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Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, late 1920s

 

The influence of Alfred Wallis on Ben and Kit Wood could also be seen. Wallis, who they met in St Ives in 1928, was a prolific, self taught naive painter who painted on any suitable materials that came to hand with paint bought from ships’ chandlers. Nicholson and Wood were influenced by his simple style and, Nicholson in particular, followed his example of painting on scraps of wood and card.

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Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse c.1928

1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach no. 2, 1928

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Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the range of styles Kit Wood adopted. Some paintings were clearly influenced by Ben while there was a flower painting that was very reminiscent of Winifred’s style.

a still life of flowers in a vase

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

There was a painting from a private collection of his then female lover, Frosca Munster (The Blue Necklace, 1926) – he’d painted her oversized, just like those paintings of women by Picasso from the early 1920’s. There was no question for me that he was copying Picasso’s style. The exhibition also included Woods’ final painting of a zebra in front of the Villa Savoy with a parachutist descending from the sky in the background. Very surreal. 

Christopher Wood, ‘Zebra and Parachute’ 1930

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute 1930

Wallis’ pictures were included to illustrate his influence on Ben and Kit, so that made sense. But I really couldn’t see why Staite Murray’s pots, as nice as some of them were, were included in this exhibition. The only connection was that he was a friend of the Nicholsons. I suppose it provided some variety and allowed things to be displayed in the centre of the exhibition rooms!

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William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931,

The exhibition moves on to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge soon and then to Dulwich Art Gallery in London. It would be worth the trip to see it at one of these venues  for anyone interested in the St Ives school or, the work of Winifred.. 

Christopher Wood (1901-1930) – A fatal Englishman

Christopher (Kit) Wood was a British artist who, with his friend Ben Nicholson, helped to launch the St Ives school of painting back in the 1930’s when they spent some time in the small Cornish town. There, in 1928, they discovered the self taught “naive” painter, Alfred Wallis who had a major influence on their work.

I’d seen a number of his paintings during recent visits to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. When I discovered that the author Sebastian Faulks had written about Christopher Wood in his book “The Fatal Englishman”, I thought I’d get hold of a copy as I was interested in finding out more about his life. The book isn’t just about Wood, it actually contains three brief “biographical sketches”, also covering the lives of Richard Hilary, a pilot who flew Spitfires during the Second World War  and Jeremy Wolfenden, who got mixed up in espionage in Russia during the 1950’s.

Christopher Wood was born in Huyton in 1901 where his father was working as a doctor. Today Huyton is part of the Liverpool sprawl and is probably best known as the centre of Harold Wilson’s constituency. At that time it was a town out in the countryside. He was sent to public school at Malvern College and then went on to study architecture at Liverpool University, but dropped out to devote himself to painting, apparently encouraged by Augustus John. He went to London to work for a fruit importer but soon ended up in Paris studying art, mixing with the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

I was curious to find out how  a middle class Englishman from the provinces ended up in Paris. Unfortunately Faulks’ narrative didn’t really enlighten me. He jumps from London to Paris within the space of a few sentences without any proper explanation. My personal view is that he got his opportunity via the artistic equivalent of the casting couch. He became friendly with Alphonse Kahn, a wealthy, homosexual art collector and patron, and ‘one of the best-connected men in the whole of the Paris art world’ who took him under his wing. Faulks’ view is that he didn’t have a sexual relationship with Kahn, but doesn’t provide any evidence in support of this view. But I find it hard to believe that Kahn would have plucked Wood out from obscurity out of pure philanthropy.

In Paris he became the lover of Antonio de Gandarillas, a Chilean Diplomat, who supported his artistic endeavours, enrolling him in art schools, building him a studio in London, and introducing him to opium. In Paris he met artists including Picasso and Jean Cocteau (with whom he may have had a sexual relationship). He was bisexual and also had relationships with women, including Meraud Guinness, from the aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, although the marriage was effectively scuppered by her mother.

He became friends with Ben Nicholson and his first wife Winifred. According to Faulks he had a particularly close relationship with Winifred. They painted together and Ben Nicholson encouraged him to paint more experimentally.

Reading through the book I found myself disliking Christopher Wood. He became sucked into a hedonistic lifestyle after he went to Paris, mixing with some decadent characters and becoming addicted to opium. He was living in a world very remote from his middle class provincial origins in Huyton. His death, killed by a train at Salisbury station after a meeting with his mother was probably suicide.

But disliking Wood as an individual doesn’t mean that I have to dislike his art. He was a talented painter and played an important role in helping to, establish Modern Art in the UK. He painted a large number of colourful paintings in the Celtic regions of England and France – Cornwall and Brittany. A good selection of his paintings can be viewed on the web here.

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Portrait  of Constant Lambert 1926 Source: Wikipedia

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Building the boats 1930 at  Kettle’s Yard

His pictures are bright and colourful and many of them are of everyday scenes of working people and their environment by the coast in Cornwall and Brittany, but he also painted portraits, still lives and other subjects. I’m no expert on art but, to me, his style was influenced by the Post Impressionists and the Fauves but seems to be untouched by Picasso. He was also heavily influenced by the primitive style of Arthur Wallace. However, although taking these influences on board he clearly developed his own style. It’s a pity that he died so young as he had the potential to further develop and possibly become a more significant artist.