Nicholson painted this study of still life arranged on a table top in the early 1920s, while staying in Switzerland. The table’s surface slopes sharply upwards towards a corner, making the space seem compressed and the objects almost appear to be standing on top of one another. On the table the still life consists of an arrangement of breakfast items: five loaves of bread, several bowls and a milkpan with milk visible inside it. The handle of the pan seems to push beyond the picture plane. In the background, the loaves are positioned curiously on their ends resulting in a cluster of strong, vertical forms. Whilst the forms are heavy and sculptural, and the paint thickly applied to suggest a lack of finish, the bowl in the lower right has a quality of transparency, which allows the form behind it to show through.
During the early 1920s, Nicholson focused intensely on landscape and still life and his approach was experimental. 1922 (bread) is an early example of the painter’s break with academicism. Nicholson’s father was Sir William Nicholson (1872–1949), one of the most successful artists of his generation, a portraitist and painter of landscapes and still life. His mother, Mabel Pryde (1871–1918), was also a painter. In 1910 Nicholson enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but he was not fulfilled there and stayed for just over a year. With 1922 (bread), which is characterised by a deliberate crudeness, the painter seeks to move away both from the sophisticated style he developed in the 1910s, and from the tradition of painting linked with his father (Lewison, 1991, p.9).
Nicholson and his wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981), spent most of the winters of the early 1920s at their home in Switzerland, dividing the rest of their time between London and Cumberland. The Nicholsons had bought the Villa Capriccio at Castagnola, near Lake Lugano, in 1920 during their honeymoon. On their subsequent journeys to and from Castagnola they regularly stopped in Paris, which would prove formative for Nicholson’s practice. There he came into direct contact with the work of artists including Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963). The sculptural qualities and three dimensionality of 1922 (bread) evoke perhaps the still lifes of the French artist André Derain (1880–1954) (Lewison, 2003, p.18).
Nevertheless, Nicholson’s interest in still life painting had its origins in his father’s work, even though their styles were opposed; see, for example, William Nicholson’s The Lowestoft Bowl 1911 (N03178). In an interview in 1963, Nicholson explained: ‘[the still life theme] didn’t come from Cubism, as some people think, but from my father’ (quoted in Lewison, 1991, p.8).
Nicholson produced at least four versions of 1922 (bread) in this period. Although he worked very consistently during the 1920s, averaging two canvases a day, he destroyed or painted over most of these early paintings, which makes T07955 a particularly rare example. The artist would continue throughout his career to use a diaristic method to title his work, as is the case with this one. Nicholson’s titles record the year of production, and often a more specific date (the month and even the day) with which he associated the image, in combination with identifying words, either descriptive or locational.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, reproduced p.30, fig.3.
Margaret Gartlake, ‘Still Life 1945–58,’ in Chris Stephens, ed., A Continuous Line: Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.19.
Ben Nicholson in England, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall, Kendal 2008, reproduced p.17.