Winifred Nicholson in Cumberland

Cumbrian landscape painting by Winifred Nicholson, one of the leading British 20th Century modern artists

‘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 Nicholson

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

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, c1949s

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

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

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.

“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.. 

The Radev Collection at Abbot Hall

We drove up to Kendal last Saturday, the main reason being to visit  The Radev Collection: Bloomsbury & Beyond, the latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall gallery before it finishes at the end of this month.

The exhibition comprised a selection of paintings and other works from the Radev collection – a collection of 20th Century works accumulated over a number of years by three gay men who were associated with the Bloomsbury group.  From the Gallery’s website:

The Radev Collection is named after Mattei Radev, who came to Britain in the 1950’s as a stowaway on a cargo ship, fleeing from communism in his native Bulgaria. Radev went on to build a new life in London mixing in the artistic Bloomsbury circle and becoming a leading picture framer for the London Galleries.

Radev inherited most of the works from his friend the artist-dealer Eardley Knollys who had in turn inherited from music critic 5th Lord Sackville, Eddy Sackville-West following the latter’s’ death in 1965.

Abbot Hall is the last call for the exhibition which has already been shown in Chichester, Lincoln, Bath and Falmouth.

Quite a number of the works were by artists, many of them British, that I hadn’t come across before. But there were some were some works by more well known artists including prints by Picasso and Braque and paintings by Lucian Pissarro,  Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben and. Winifred Nicholson, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.  Although there were no “great” masterpieces, the standard of works on display was very high.  And it is always good to be introduced to artists I’ve not come across before.

These are a few of the works I particularly liked.

This abstract painting by the Russian Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky, who worked in Germany and was a member of the Blue Rider group, was displayed in the first of the three rooms immediatly facing the door, so it was hard to miss. I’ve been reading up on German Expressionism lately so found it particularly interesting.

Blaue strasse

Blaue strasse c. 1916 by Alexei Jawlensky (1864 – 1941)

There were a couple of paintings by Winifred Nicholson. This simple, subdued painting of flowers on a window sill was my favourite.

Waking up

Waking up (c. 1954) by Winifred Nicholson

And there were a couple of paintings by the French painter Maurice Denis. He was, apparently, very religious and this is often reflected in his subject matter as in this painting.

Procession in Brittany

Procession in Brittany by Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943)

There was an original of the little dancer bronze by Henri Gaudier-Brezska, a copy of which we saw at Kettle’s Yard when we visited Cambridge in January 2012. It’s a lovely little work, beautifully posed. It was really nicely displayed- spot lit so it casted shadows behind it onto the walls – very effective. No photos allowed at Abbot Hall, but here’s a picture I took of the Little Dancer when we visited Kettle’s Yard.


The “discovery of the day” was an English painter  I’d not come across before, Adrian Ryan. There were a number of works by him on display, a couple of landscapes and a still life. The two landscapes, with their bright colours and swirly brushstrokes, very much reminded me of works by Van Gogh.

The canal at Moret-sur-Loing

The canal at Moret-sur-Loing (1948) Adrian Ryan (1920 – 1998)

All the works from the collection can be viewed on the website on a dedicated website here.

The title of the exhibition emphasised the connection of the three collectors with the so called “Bloomsbury set” of artists, writers and the like. But there isn’t a Bloomsbury style or school of art as such. The collection is simply representative of the type of art being produced in Britain and a few other countries at the time and that would have been popular with the type of people associated with the loose grouping of intellectuals. So a marketing ploy rather than a description of an artistic movement. But a good selection of works, nevertheless. And definitely worth the drive up the M6.