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Ben Nicholson

Artist Biography

Ben Nicholson (1894 - 1982) was born in Buckinghamshire near Uxbridge, on the outskirts of London. His family were wealthy, and from them he inherited a tradition of artistic heritage. Both his father, William Nicholson, and uncle, James Pryde were notable painters of their generation, and his mother was also a painter.

Nicholson’s only formal art training was gained during his one term at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London in 1911. The subjects that he worked with during this time were typically bottles, mugs, cups and bottles - an array of objects that held his interest throughout his career. His early still life works were heavily influenced by his father’s works.
The painterly training that he received in the institution was, he felt, too provincial, and he left in a bid to explore and develop further his own, more abstract and formally unique ways of working. 

Following his time in the school, he spent three years travelling in France, Italy, and Spain. In 1917 he moved to Pasadena, California, where he lived for one year.
While in California, Nicholson experienced his first Cubist work - a painting by the unequivocally inspiring Picasso. The extent to which this affected the artist is evident from his comment that "none of the actual events in one's life have been more real than that, and it still remains a standard by which I judge any reality in my own world."

In the early 1920s, Nicholson produced soft landscapes and still - lifes that displayed a luminous quality. He experimented with delicate colours and flowing lines to depict with lightness the essential and bare elements of things, always pared back with precision through his use of indeterminate forms. These landscapes are often regarded as containing the quintessential poetic vision and feeling with which Nicholson depicted nature - an elementary passion that speaks through his pieces.

He continued to develop ways of forming abstractly; continuous flirtations with surface texture enabled new means of representing still life subjects in an ever - evolving way. In 1925, Nicholson exhibited his works alongside Brancusi, Miro, Mondrian, Nash and Picasso in a group exhibition in Paris.
During this period he was also closely associated with Christopher Wood, and there has often been comparisons drawn between the playful freedom with which Wood worked in terms of form, perspective and scale, and Nicholson’s pieces. In 1926, Wood and Nicholson exhibited alongside Winifred at the Mayor Gallery in London.

In 1922, Nicholson held his first solo show at the Adelphi Gallery in London. The artist’s paintings in the period that followed showed increasingly greater signs of abstractism, largely influenced by Synthetic Cubism.
Nicholson’s style continued to develop and become more formally refined. By 1927, his interest in early English folk art and the work of Henri Rousseau had proved affective on his ways of working, and he began to craft in a way that is best described as capturing the simplicity of primitive art in a purely modern fashion.

These experimentations were further compounded in 1928 when he discovered the work of Alfred Wallis at St. Ives in Cornwall the work of Alfred Wallis - perhaps the most influential modern English primitive. Nicholson had travelled to Cornwall with Wood and Winifred where they stumbled across Wallis- a local fisherman painting at his table in his humble dwellings in St Ives. The development of British art was transformed by this impromptu meeting. His untrained, naïve style of painting fitted perfectly with Nicholson's own desire to find "truthful and fresh way of conveying reality". Wallis used discarded cardboard and pieces of wood, which he painted on to directly with ship or household paint to capture his surrounding St Ives, using imagery that paid homage to the memories of fisherman. The first ever Wallis painting to go up for sale was acquire by Nicholson.

Nicholson was associated with various groups and movements. He was a member of the Seven and Five society from 1924 to 1935, and became a core member of the group he joined Unit One, in 1933 - founded by Paul Nash, also including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The artist had intrinsic ties with Naum Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin, with whom he edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art in 1937. This group of people shared various aesthetic interests; they were artists and architects alike who saw a way of applying 'constructivist' principles to public and private art. Their philosophies for creation proceeded from the principles of mathematical precision, the use of clean lines and, basic forms and an absence of ornamentation.

Nicolson was highly celebrated and decorated during his artistic career. The artist won first prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1952. In 1956, he was awarded the first Guggenheim International painting prize, and a year later his painting earned him the international prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Biennale.

In 1968 Nicholson received the Order of Merit- a highly prestigious honour, given for their invaluable contribution to the arts, which was also awarded to some of his contemporaries such as Henry Moore.
Over the artist’s career there has been myriad retrospective exhibitions of his work. Between 1954 -1955 shows were held shows at the Venice Biennale and Tate Gallery, in 1961 at Kunsthalle, Berne, and in 1964 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, showcased his pieces, in 1978, and in 1993 - 4 he was honoured by the Tate Gallery.

From the international exposure that Nicholson’s work enjoyed during British Council tours over the 1940s and 1950s, and with the support of the writer Herbert Read, who enthusiastically championed the artist, Nicholson has come to be regarded as a an artistic icon and the quintessential forefather of British modernism.