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 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".
Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, c.1926
Christopher Wood Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928 (source)
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
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.
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.
Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse c.1928
Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach no. 2, 1928
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.
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
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!
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..