In the mid 1950s Nicholson made several journeys to Italy and painted a number of abstract still lifes with Italian titles, including Oct. 55 (Torre del Grillo, Rome). This drawing features, in the extreme foreground, a close view of still life in which a large jug and a bowl of pears are identifiable. The still life elements are set against a complex cityscape made up of an assemblage of details: roofs and cornices and other more distinctive elements, including the top of the cupola of a church, part of a bell tower, and three poplar trees. The cityscape and the still life are drawn in outline with limited shading on cream coloured paper. A pinkish wash has been applied over a rectangular area from the upper left, which covers approximately two-thirds of the composition. Nicholson places the still life in an ambiguous foreground space that merges with the fragmented Roman panorama in the background.
Nicholson’s work in Italy, although closely related to the central concerns of his art, is a special category in his oeuvre, which demonstrates his appreciation of Italian architecture and landscape. The title of T07796 invokes the locality of the Torre del Grillo in Rome, approximately between the Forum of Trajan and the Quirinale, where Nicholson’s niece lived, and where he stayed in 1955. In the same year the artist exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in 1956 he returned to Rome and travelled in Tuscany and Umbria. His output from this period includes August 1956 (Val d’Orcia) 1956 (T00742), for which he won the first Guggenheim International Award.
Nicholson produced line drawing still lifes throughout the 1950s and for the rest of his artistic career. The integration of a centrally-placed still life arrangement with a view through a window (or as if through a window) is characteristic of his work, both in drawings and paintings. In Oct. 55 (Torre del Grillo, Rome), details in the foreground include forms resembling the outlines of two wrought iron chair backs, which perhaps suggest that the composition was inspired by a view from a balcony or terrace. The objects in the foreground are visible in layers, and in places become transparent; for example, part of the outline of the jug is visible beneath the fruit bowl. The selected dense areas of modelling (such as the curving spout of the jug) seem designed to emphasise edges rather than to create a sense of three dimensionality. In 1954 the artist explained: ‘I ... like to chisel out a form (either with a chisel or a pencil) – & there is an excitement for me in chiselling out flat planes’ (quoted in Lewison, 1993, p.75).
The drawing T07796 is legible in terms of the foreground still life and background cityscape, not least because Nicholson emphasises the roundness of the outlines of the still life objects (table, jug, bowl and pears) against the verticality of the buildings and trees behind them. But Oct. 55 (Torre del Grillo, Rome) blurs conventional distinctions between foreground and background, exploring the way that these realms appear to overlap, rather than drawing attention to spaces that must intervene between them. Parts of the still life protrude into the background: for example, the lip of the jug meets the background cityscape at a point of juncture in a fragment of city wall to the extreme left of the composition. In the centre of the composition, the extravagantly rounded handle of the jug frames one part of the vista.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.179, fig.103.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Hayama 2003.
Margaret Gartlake, ‘Still Life 1945–58’ in Chris Stephens, ed., A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hill, Kendal 2008.