Benjamin Lauder Nicholson, OM (10 April 1894 – 6 February 1982) was an English painter of abstract compositions (sometimes in low relief), landscape and still-life.
Nicholson was born on 10 April 1894 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, the son of the painters Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde, and brother to the artist Nancy Nicholson, the architect Christopher Nicholson and to Anthony Nicholson. His maternal grandmother Barbara Pryde (née Lauder) was a niece of the famous artist brothers Robert Scott Lauder and James Eckford Lauder. The family moved to London in 1896. Nicholson was educated at Tyttenhangar Lodge Preparatory School, Seaford, at Heddon Court, Hampstead and then as a boarder at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. He trained as an artist in London at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1910 and 1911, where he was a contemporary of Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, and Edward Wadsworth. According to Nash, with whom he formed a close friendship, Nicholson spent more time during his year at the Slade playing billiards than painting or drawing, since the abstract formality of the green baize and the constantly changing relationships of the balls were, he later claimed, of more appeal to his aesthetic sense.
Nicholson was married three times. His first marriage was to the painter Winifred Roberts; it took place on 5 November 1920 at St. Martin-in-the-FieldsChurch, London. Nicholson and Winifred had three children: a son, Jake, in June 1927; a daughter, Kate (who later also became a painter), in July 1929; and a son, Andrew, in September 1931. They were divorced in 1938. His second marriage was to fellow artist Barbara Hepworth on 17 November 1938 at Hampstead Register Office. Nicholson and Hepworth had triplets, two daughters, Sarah and Rachel, and a son, Simon, in 1934. They were divorced in 1951. The third and final marriage was to Felicitas Vogler, a German photographer. They married in July 1957 and divorced in 1977.
His first notable work was following a meeting with the playwright J. M. Barrie on holiday in Rustington, Sussex, in 1904. As a result of this meeting, Barrie used a drawing by Nicholson as the base for a poster for the play Peter Pan; his father William designed some of the sets and costumes.
Nicholson was exempted from World War I military service due to asthma. He travelled to New York in 1917 for an operation on his tonsils, then visited other American cities, returning to Britain in 1918. Before he returned, Nicholson's mother died in July of influenza and his brother Anthony Nicholson was killed in action.
From 1920 to 1933 he was married to the painter Winifred Nicholson and lived in London. After Nicholson's first exhibition of figurative works in London in 1922, his work began to be influenced by Synthetic Cubism, and later by the primitive style of Rousseau. In 1926 he became chair of the Seven and Five Society.
In London Nicholson met the sculptors Barbara Hepworth (to whom he was married from 1938 to 1951) and Henry Moore. On visits to Paris he met Mondrian, whose work in the neoplastic style was to influence him in an abstract direction, and Picasso, whose cubism would also find its way into his work. His gift, however, was the ability to incorporate these European trends into a new style that was recognizably his own. He first visited St Ives, Cornwall, in 1928 with his fellow painter Christopher Wood, where he met the fisherman and painter, Alfred Wallis. In Paris in 1933 he made his first wood relief, White Relief, which contained only right angles and circles. In 1937 he was one of the editors of Circle, an influential monograph on constructivism. He believed that abstract art should be enjoyed by the general public, as shown by the Nicholson Wall, a mural he created for the garden of Sutton Place in Guildford, Surrey. Nicholson moved to St Ives in 1939 living at Trezion, Salubrious Place, for 19 years. In 1943 he joined the St Ives Society of Artists.
He won the prestigious Carnegie Prize in 1952 and in 1955 a retrospective exhibition of his work was shown at the Tate Gallery in London. In 1956 he won the first Guggenheim International painting prize and in 1957 the international prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Art Biennial.
Nicholson married the photographer Felicitas Vogler in 1957 and moved to Castagnola, Switzerland, in 1958. In 1968 he received the British Order of Merit(OM). In 1971 he separated from Vogler and moved to Cambridge. In 1977 they divorced.
Nicholson's last home was in Pilgrim's Lane, Hampstead. He died there on 6 February 1982 and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 12 February 1982.
Some of Nicholson's works can be seen at the Tate Gallery, Tate St Ives, Kettle's Yard Art Gallery in Cambridge, The Hepworth Wakefield, and the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney. An auction record for this artist of $1,650,500 was set at Christie's, New York, for Sept 53 (Balearic), an oil and pencil on canvas, on 1 November 2011. His painting Fiddle and Spanish Guitar, in oil and gravel on masonite, was sold for €3,313,000 by Christie's in Paris on 27 September 2012.
Following trips to Italy, including Florence in 1963, Ben Nicholson created the beautifully crafted etchings ‘Tuscan Church Portico’ Lafranca 7 (signed Etching and Aquatint) ‘Aquileia’ Lafranca 12, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Fragment of a Tuscan Cathedral’ Lafranca 18, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Small Silent Siena’ Lafranca 19, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Pisa’ Lafranca 23, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Siena’ (Large Version) Lafranca 22, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Lucca’ Lafranca 24, 1965, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Pisa as Intended’ Lafranca 42, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Verona’ Lafranca 30b, 1966, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘San Gimigano’ Lafranca 38, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Italian Mountain Village’ (Lucca) Lafranca 116, 1967, edition size unknown, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson. ‘Pisa (Vertical) Lafranca 73, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right in pencil Ben Nicholson.
In 1968 Vogler and Ben Nicholson visited the Venice Biennale; they travelled (as they had before) to the ethereal island of Torcello, set in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. The beauty of the religious buildings inspired the etchings ‘Torcello I’ Lafranca 76, 1967, and ‘Torcello II’ Lafranca 90, 1969, both etchings are edition sizes of 50 and signed in pencil bottom right Ben Nicholson.
Ben Nicholson made a significant body of prints, which he produced in phases rather than continuously throughout his life. Between the wars he carved relief prints – apart from the one woodcut ‘Five Circles’ he worked only in linoleum; immediately after the Second World War Ben Nicholson made a small group of drypoints, famously ‘Trendrine’ and, in the 1960s, he executed a large group of etchings with the Swiss printer François Lafranca. Many are mentioned above and are signed etchings from series of prints called ‘Suites’ such as the etchings; ‘Curled Turkish Form’ and ‘Turkish Sundial and Column’, both are from a suite of 12 etching prints called ‘Greek and Turkish Forms’ and are printed with tone on woven paper, signed, dated (1966) and numbered from the edition of 50 in pencil; printed by Lafranca, Locarno, with their blindstamp and published by Ganymed Original Editions. The etchings ‘Palästra’ and ‘Small Silent Siena’ are two of ten etchings included in Ben Nicholson’s ‘architectural suite’ (where ‘small silent Siena’ is entitled ‘Siena’).mad
When Ben Nicholson departed Cornwall in the mid 50’s the Cornish Landscape left his paintings too. The landscape ceased to partner the still life in the way it had done in the 1940s. As the landscape recedes in his works there are distant echoes of the Synthetic Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque which Nicholson had first seen in Paris in 1920. Writing about Nicholson’s still lifes at the beginning of the 1950s Norbert Lynton has written that ‘our attention is sought first by the play of lines that represent the still life, secondly by the supporting planes that were the table, and thirdly by the wider setting and its implications of space and location’ (quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 252). At first these works displayed only a semi-referential use of line that rarely fully delivered up the still life and colour is unassertive. As the period progresses the lines begin to coalesce and recognizable objects like a bottle, a jug or a goblet emerge from delicate patches of yellow, white and pale blue, creating a shifting, ambiguous sense of spatial relations. Transparent or lightly shaded areas are interspersed with solid accents of colour. This gradual change is echoed in many of Ben Nicholson’s etching prints from the 1960’s such as; the signed etching print ‘Still Life with Curves’ Lafranca 13, 1965, edition of 50. ‘Small Still Life’ Lafranca 40, 1967, edition of 25, signed in pencil bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Large Jug, Small Jug’ Lafranca 44, 1967, edition of 100, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Three Goblets’ Lafranca 51, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Two Bottles and Glass’ Lafranca 86, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Kesiner Print 66’, 1966, edition of 300, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Complicated Forms’ Lafranca 48, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Two Goblets and a Mug’ Lafranca 115, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Single Form’ Lafranca 114, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Bird Form’ Lafranca 113, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Half Mug, Half Jug’ Lafranca 96, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Complex of Goblets’ Lafranca 51, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Still Life with Grey’ Lafranca 83, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. ‘Two Sculptural Forms’ Lafranca 89, 1968, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson. And Etching and Aquatint print ‘Goblet Forms’ Lafranca 91, 1967, edition of 50, signed bottom right Ben Nicholson.
Having declined most awards bestowed upon him, Ben Nicholson finally accepted the British Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth in 1968. By 1977 Nicholson had divorced his third wife and moved to London, where he continued to paint, from his studio in Chelsea until his death in 1982.