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St Ives (yellow and white) Oct 14–51 is one of an extensive series of drawings and paintings that Ben Nicholson produced during the late 1940s and 1950s of views of the Cornish coast. The scene combines the panorama of St Ives in the background, with an abstract arrangement of large, geometric still life items, principally mugs or jugs with clearly articulated handles, in the foreground. Both landscape and still life are built up through outlines, some overlapping. Parts of the still life in the foreground appear transparent because the outlines have not been filled in. The effects of shadow are suggested through dense areas of shading. Three areas of the paper have been rubbed away to expose the pink texture of the paper underneath the surface, which was a characteristic of Nicholson’s process. Despite this, the work’s title calls attention to yellow – the colour of the paper – and white – referring to the blocks of gouache, as well as the place and date the drawing was made, following the artist’s customary system of titling. The artist inscribed the title on the drawing’s backboard.
In 1939 Nicholson and his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903–75), went to live in St Ives in Cornwall. He stayed for almost twenty years, relocating in 1958 to Switzerland. It was in St Ives that Nicholson encountered the work of the self-taught, local painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942), whose naïve style impressed him for its purity and simplicity of vision; see, for example, St Ives c.1928 (T00881), which Nicholson owned. During this period, works inspired by the Cornish coast dominated Nicholson’s output. In a letter to his patron Helen Sutherland in 1947, the artist tried to put into words an account of a Cornish coastal view: ‘I can’t describe it but I expect one day something of this will come out in a ptg – it is the contrast between the sea & land which is so exciting’ (quoted in Lewison, 1993, p.86).
Nicholson had begun to depict still life on a table top in the 1920s, a format linked to the Cubist compositions of Picasso and Braque. By the 1940s he favoured the representation of a centrally-placed still life arrangement set against a landscape, as if seen through a window, in order to play on the distinctions between foreground and background. In some of the paintings and drawings that follow this format, Nicholson includes the suggestion of a window frame and sill, as in 1943–5 (St Ives, Cornwall) (N05625). In others, the still life is more abstracted and seems balanced or even suspended in the foreground, for example, 11 November 1947 (Mousehole), British Council (reproduced in Stephens, p.103). The view-through-a-window format allowed Nicholson to explore and undermine conventional spatial relationships and create ‘a tension between two places: inside and outside, the familiar and strange’ (Gartlake, ‘Still Life 1945–58’ in Stephens, p.93).
The panorama of St Ives harbour, when seen from a high vantage point within the town, lent itself in particular to Nicholson’s project. He often used distinctive local landmarks, such as Smeaton’s Pier lighthouse and the Godrevy lighthouse, as devices to create focal points in the broader landscape. In St Ives (yellow and white) Oct 14–51, Nicholson makes St Nicholas’s Chapel, perched above the town on the hill called the Island, the background’s central focus.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Hayama 2003.
Chris Stephens, ed., A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall, Kendal 2008.