“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)


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

1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

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.

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!


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.. 

Abbot Hall at Fifty

Abbot Hall at Fifty

I can’t believe that we only discovered this superb gallery, an hour’s drive away,  a month ago. I came across it by accident when exploring the Art Guide app I’d installed on my iPad just after Easter and discovered they were holding an exhibition of watercolours by Turner and his contemporaries. That was coming to the end of it’s run and while we were there I found out about the next exhibition being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gallery’s opening consisting of of works from their collection selected by members of the public, artists and supporters.

The Abbot’s collection has quite a different emphasis to that of most galleries in the region. The great municipal galleries in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds were opened during the Victorian age and, as a consequence the core of their collections consists of examples of art from that period. They started with a collection and built their Galleries to accommodate them. The Abbot, however, started with a building that had been restored and converted into a gallery and then had to collect works to fill it. So they began to collect contemporary works, some donated, some purchased, and paintings from the Georgian period, including works by local lad George Romney, who became a fashionable portrait painter. They also have a collection of 18th & 19th Century Watercolours, many Lakeland landscapes, and works by John Ruskin, who lived in the Lake District at Brantwood on Lake Coniston, at the end of his life.

Their collection of modern and contemporary works is excellent. They have paintings, drawings, prints and a few sculptures by the likes of Frank Aurbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth,  Patrick Heron, David Hockney, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Bridget Riley, Stanley Spencer, Sean Scully and many others, some well known, some less so.

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Oval Form, Trezion (1962-3) by Barbara Hepworth – on the lawn in front of the gallery entrance

So we had to go back and have a look at the exhibition and took the opportunity last week when I was having a few days off work. Unfortunately the gallery do not allow photographs to be taken, but they do have a resource on their website here where selected works can be viewed.

The first works were being displayed in the entrance hall. An attractive painting by Winifred Nicholson Candle at a Window (1960) was hung by the side of the cash desk where you pay your entrance fee and facing it was a still life by the Scottish Colourist, John Peploe Still Life with Tulips and Oranges (1925). In many ways they were quite similar – colourful still lives painted in an impressionistic style. To the right of the cash desk there was a print by Picasso and at the end of the hall there was a small bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Frink, Harbinger Bird II (c. 1963).

Abbot Hall at Fifty

Image source ; Abbot Hall gallery

The bulk of the exhibits were in the three of the main rooms on the first floor. The first room contained portraits. They included some from the Georgian period and others from the Modern collection.  I particularly liked Modesty (c 1781) by the Swiss-Austrian female painter, Angelica Kauffman, the Portrait of Jimmy Newmark (1943) by David Bomberg and Portrait of Marjorie Gertler (c 1925) by Mark Gertler.

In the second room there were Modern works including pictures by St Ives artists Bryan Winter, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost. There was a large painting by Tony Bevan Horizon (1998) which presents an unusual view of a couple of heads – looking up their nostrils! He’s only used one colour of paint – red – and charcoal. I thought it was very effective. The Gallery have used it in their publicity for the exhibition (see top of post), but to appreciate it you really need to see it “in the flesh”.

Abbot Hall at Fifty

Image source ; Abbot Hall gallery

The third room contained landscape paintings by artists including Turner,  Lowry and Edward Lear (born 200 years ago on 12 June), who, although most well known as a writer of nonsense verse was principally an accomplished artist.

Windermere From Wansfell (1850) by Edward Lear Source: Abbot Hall Gallery

I was also impressed by the four photographs of a snow and ice sculpture created by Andy Goldsworthy – Slits Cut into Frozen Snow, Stormy… Blencathra, Cumbria, 12 February 1988. They were all taken within a few hours of each other, yet create very different moods as the light and weather conditions had changed during the course of the day (as is not untypical for the Lake District). The photos formed a permanent record of a very transient work

There were very few other works from the exhibition in another one of the rooms upstairs, including a painting by Sean Scully and a print by Henry Moore.

Abbot Hall at Fifty

Image source ; Abbot Hall gallery

There were very few works in the exhibition I didn’t like. Their collection, although it doesn’t contain many “masterpieces” shows what can be achieved with some commitment, determination and imagination.

Other modern works were on display in the other couple of rooms on the first floor. On the ground floor the Gallery were showing their collection of watercolours by John Ruskin and paintings by George Rowley and other Georgian artists were hung in the two restored period rooms. The Great Picture a large scale triptych, was also on display. It was commissioned by Lady Anne Clifford in 1646 who counted Appleby Hall amongst her many other possessions. It’s a remarkable example of Elizabethan art.

It was another very enjoyable visit. We’ll definitely be going back soon. I’m particularly looking forward to the exhibition of works by Hughie O’Donoghue that they’re holding later this year (28 September – 22 December 2012).

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


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.