Summary

This work, c.1936 (sculpture), is one of two sculptures by Nicholson in the Tate's collection. Made from a block of hardwood, it was created by a combination of sawing, sanding and planing. All the faces have been painted white with the exception of the underside, which remains in its natural state. The second sculpture (Tate Gallery T07274) is carved from a block of plaster.

Nicholson's practice of carving reliefs led him naturally to explore the possibility of making sculpture, which he was encouraged to do while sharing a studio with his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. He wrote to his estranged wife, the artist Winifred Nicholson, on 24 February [?1936] that he had just made his first sculpture 'which feels pretty exciting I can tell you ... It is cut out of mahogany & painted white. Tomorrow I am going to hunt for some chunks of wood ... Cutting wood is easy & the free movement & quickness of the whole thing is refreshing after the tremendous & meticulous concentration of the new ptg.' (quoted in Lewison, p.221). These remarks were accompanied by a sketch of a sculpture which is now lost, probably destroyed. c.1936 (sculpture) was probably made in March, for on 13 March 1936 Nicholson wrote to Winifred that he had made four sculptures, two in wood and two in plaster.

Nicholson's sculptures differ significantly from his reliefs in their emphasis on architectural qualities. His hardwood piece resembles buildings of the period, while the plaster work in the Tate collection is suggestive of a wall. The sculptures were made at the same time that Nicholson was collaborating with Leslie Martin and Naum Gabo in the production of their intended periodical Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (1937), in which painting and sculpture were united with architecture. The planar quality of c.1936 (sculpture), however, also relates to the work of artists associated with the de Stijl movement, for example, Georges Vantongerloo.

This piece was given by Nicholson to the sculptor Dennis Mitchell, Barbara Hepworth's assistant, when Nicholson moved from Carbis Bay to St Ives in 1943. It was spotted by Mitchell when Nicholson was clearing out the outhouse and he expressed a liking for it, whereupon Nicholson offered it to him. Nicholson told Mitchell he had put it away because, on completing it, he had shown it to Hepworth 'who had laughed at it'. Nicholson gave the work to Mitchell telling him he could make his own sculpture from the block if he wished. Mitchell, however, decided to preserve it.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.223-4, reproduced
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.221, reproduced

Terry Riggs
January 1998