Ben Nicholson OM

1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint and graphite on canvas
Support: 554 × 612 mm
frame: 765 × 825 × 75 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1986

Display caption

This is the first abstract Ben Nicholson painted and is one of only a few such works made by British artists in this period. Younger, avant-garde artists tended to concentrate on still life and landscape in the twenties using them as vehicles for formal experiment. Only three early abstract paintings by Nicholson are known and all of them display evidence of a sophiscated understanding of Cubism and its insistence on shallow space and overlapping planes. This painting was very advanced in the context of British art in this period, where the notion of abstraction was essentially equated with the distortion of natural appearance.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04861 first abstract painting, Chelsea c.1923–4

Oil and pencil on canvas 554 × 612 (21 3/4 × 24 1/8) mounted on painted board 743 × 800 (29 1/4 × 31 1/2) Believed to be inscribed on back of canvas (see below); inscribed ‘NICHOLSON | 1924 | signature and date | on back of canvas’, ‘first abstract painting | made King's Rd | Chelsea’ on backboard left of centre, ‘white form at base | worked on a few years later’ on backboard along b.l. and ‘Nicholson | 1924’ on backboard t.r. Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1986
Prov: Estate of the artist
Exh: Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, June–July 1969 (7); Abstraction 1910–1914, Annely Juda Fine Art, July–Sept. 1980 (21, as ‘First Abstract Painting’); Ben Nicholson Memorial Display, Tate Gallery, April–May 1982 (no catalogue, no number); Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, Oct. 1993–Jan. 1994 (6, as ‘1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)’)
Lit: Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson: The Years of Experiment 1919–39, exh. cat., Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge 1983, pp.13–14; Gavin Bell, ‘Galleries Gain from Paintings Tax Deal’, Times, 24 Dec. 1986, p.2; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.65, repr. (col.), dated 1924; Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1991, p.9, repr. (col.); Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1993, pp.24, 206 (repr.), 233, repr. p.106 (col.); Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, 1993, pp.27–8, 32, 199, 434, 436, pl.19 (col., as ‘1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)’)

This is a painting of rectangular or near rectangular abstract shapes which bear no outward resemblance to objects. Some of the forms have irregular edges while others have straight edges. The forms overlap one another and some have a translucent appearance. The colours employed are salmon pink, bright pink, grey and various shades of yellow and blue. There is one form in brilliant white and a small rectangle of red. Throughout his career Nicholson often punctuated his paintings with a patch of red and, indeed, had done so earlier in ‘1921–c.1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)’ (T05530). There are also some pencil lines on the surface, which probably indicate where Nicholson first mapped out the composition.

As its title suggests, T04861 is reputed to be the first abstract painting Nicholson made. Two others from 1924 are known to exist: ‘trout’ (private collection, repr. Lewison 1993, no.7 in col.) and ‘abstract painting - [?] Andrew’ (McMaster Art Gallery, Hamilton, Ontario, repr. Lewison 1991, no.10 in col.). Nicholson stated that ‘trout’ was his second abstract painting in a letter dated 7 March 1967 to the art historian Charles Harrison, who wrote the catalogue for the 1969 Nicholson retrospective at the Tate Gallery (letter held in Tate Gallery Archive). A painting titled ‘Andrew’ was exhibited in April 1924 at the London Group exhibition at the Mansard Gallery, Heal and Son Ltd. Although he was not a member of the London Group, Nicholson was one of the eighteen non-members represented in this show and was a friend of Frank Dobson, who became its President that year. If T04861 was Nicholson's first abstract painting and ‘trout’ was his second, then he must have made both before April 1924.

In the letter to Harrison Nicholson stated that ‘first abstract ptg ...[had] never been photo'd, framed or exhibited’ prior to 1967. It is possible, but unlikely, that Nicholson was mistaken in his memory and that it was exhibited in 1924 or 1925. The lack of visual records of exhibitions to which he contributed in these years leaves some doubt as to the identity of the works he showed. In addition to the three paintings mentioned above, three other abstract paintings of the early 1920s are recorded as having at one time existed: ‘abstraction, November’ (date unknown), which was exhibited at the fifth exhibition of the Seven and Five Society at Paterson's Gallery in December 1924, ‘c.1923–4 (Fren ch ca)’ and ‘c.1923–4 (abstract painting)’ (both lost but repr. in Lewison 1993, figs.21, 22 respectively). These last two works are known only by photographs among the letters sent to the late Wilfrid Roberts by Ben and Winifred Nicholson. These papers are on loan to the Tate Gallery Archive. Nicholson's titles for these paintings are not known. The above titles were attributed for reference purposes by Lewison in his 1993 Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue. With the exception of ‘trout’ and ‘Andrew’, which had distinctive names from inception, any one of the other four works may have been the one exhibited as ‘Abstraction’ (166) in the Exposition internationale: L'Art d'aujourd'hui, held at the Chambre Syndicale de la curiosité et des beaux-arts, Paris, in November 1925. Conceivably, T04861 was this work but, if it was Nicholson's first abstract painting and had been made before April 1924, it is more likely that he would have submitted a more recent work to the Paris exhibition.

It is also possible, although equally unlikely, that T04861 was the work exhibited as ‘abstraction, November’ in December 1924 in the Seven and Five Society show. If the title refers to the date of execution, and if it were the first abstract painting that Nicholson had executed, it could only have been made in November 1923, since ‘Andrew’ was exhibited in April 1924 at the London Group exhibition. The possibility of such an early date for T04861 is indicated in a letter to John Summerson of 25 April 1944 (estate of Sir John Summerson). Referring to the book Summerson was preparing on Nicholson (published as part of the Penguin Modern Painters series in 1948), the artist enquired: ‘I wonder if we ought to include the date of my first abstract painting which was made in 1923.’ Even if Nicholson had confused 1923 for 1924, he would probably not have exhibited a painting which was already one year old at the Seven and Five exhibition in December 1924, when more recent examples might have been available. It is more likely, therefore, that ‘abstraction, November’ was painted in November 1924 and was not T04861. Furthermore, ‘abstraction, November’ may conceivably be the title of either of the two paintings reproduced and titled by Lewison (see above), in which case the total number of recorded abstract paintings by Nicholson of 1923–4 would be reduced to five.

Assuming that T04861 had not been exhibited before 1969, when it was shown at the Tate Gallery, there remains some doubt as to the year in which it was executed. Although Nicholson reported to Summerson that T04861 had been made in 1923, he stated in a letter to Harrison, dated 6 October 1968 (Tate Gallery Archive), that the painting was executed in 1924. The inscription on the backboard, which was applied when the painting was framed sometime after 7 March 1967, indicates that when Nicholson inscribed the work for the first time, on the back of the canvas, he dated it 1924. However, there is no proof that he did so at the time of painting the work. The original inscription might well have been made at a later date. The inscription on the back of the canvas has not been verified. In order to do so the back-board would have to be destroyed.

In summary, T04861 is likely to have been the first abstract painting with which Nicholson was satisfied and is the earliest surviving of his abstract paintings. Moreover, it is also highly likely that it was exhibited for the first time in 1969 and that it was made before April 1924 and possibly as early as 1923.

In the letter to Harrison of 6 October 1968 Nicholson also remarked: ‘at the bottom one piece worked on later - & this form out of step with the rest’. This is the white form at bottom left. Nicholson did not indicate in which way he felt this to be inconsistent with the rest of the painting, but he may have been referring to the intensity of the white, which is stark compared to the more pastel shades of the other colours. He may perhaps also have been referring to the scale of the white quadrilateral. It has not been possible to establish the date of the reworking.

In the early 1920s Nicholson experimented with a range of styles observed in the work of contemporaries and recent masters, mostly in exhibitions and galleries in Paris. Between 1920 and 1923 he and his wife Winifred, herself a painter, spent the winter in the Ticino and stopped off in Paris on their journey to and from Switzerland. Having rid himself of a style based on Edwardian precedents, to a great extent inherited from his father William, Nicholson favoured still life compositions in which he depicted objects in a distorted manner on roughened surfaces, stressing the nature of the materials. In many of his works of the early 1920s he also adopted a child-like vision. His models ranged from the artists of the Trecento and Quattrocento to the more recent Cézanne, Douanier Rousseau and Derain. He was also responsive to the revival of classicism as perceived in the work of Picasso, as well as in the sculpture of his friend Frank Dobson.

The production of at least five and possibly six abstract paintings in 1923–4 is all the more surprising for its apparent incongruity at this point in Nicholson's career. In view of the fact that he ceased to make such paintings by 1925 and that only five are known in reproduction, it must be assumed that they were experimental projects which ultimately did not satisfy him. In a letter to John Summerson dated 4 July [?c.1943] (estate of Sir John Summerson) Nicholson stated that it would be important to include a reproduction of ‘painting 1933’ (repr. John Summerson, Ben Nicholson, West Drayton 1948, pl.17 in col.) in the book on Nicholson that Summerson was preparing for publication. He wrote, ‘although it is not in fact the first abstract ptg it is the first one with a real idea in it’. By implication Nicholson did not consider the abstract works of 1924 to contain ‘real’ ideas, by which he probably meant ideas expressive of an inner reality beyond appearance (for a discussion of Nicholson's use of the word ‘idea’ see Lewison 1983, p.23 and Lewison 1993, pp.26–7).

In the context of English art, however, Nicholson's still lifes were considered abstract. In the period following the publication of Clive Bell's Art (1914) and Roger Fry's Vision and Design (1920), which Nicholson knew (see Lewison 1993, pp.18–19), abstract painting in England was regarded as one which rejected ‘photographic naturalism’ and favoured the distortion of the object in an attempt to capture what Clive Bell called ‘the ultimate reality’ (Art, p.54). Nicholson's move away from the representation of objects in T04861 and similar works was, therefore, radical in the context of English art practice. Another artist who made the break from representation was Cedric Morris who as early as 1923 painted ‘Experiment in Textures’ (private collection, repr. Richard Morphet, Cedric Morris, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1984, p.27 in col.). According to Morphet, Morris made a number of abstract or near-abstract paintings between 1922 and 1925, when he was living in Paris, in which he emphasised the surface texture of paint. In Morris's work there could be considerable variety of textures within each painting, whereas in Nicholson's non-representational paintings the surfaces were treated relatively evenly. In 1914 Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had painted in a non-representational manner (see, for example, Bell's ‘Abstract Painting’, T01935 and Grant's ‘Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound’, T01744) but neither continued the practice for long. The Vorticists had also employed geometric forms although they never abandoned overt references to the object.

Although Nicholson's abstract paintings of 1923–4 appear non-referential, they were probably based on still life motifs. According to the former owner of ‘trout’, Nicholson ‘denied that it was abstract and insisted that the stripes in the top left corner represented his father's striped jug’ (see entry for no.9 in Lewison 1983, p.56). Similarly Nicholson referred to the L shape in ‘Andrew’ as a head shape (letter to John Summerson dated 25 April 1944, estate of Sir John Summerson). The bulbous form towards the bottom of this painting has a strong resemblance to the spotted jug in ‘1925 (still life)’ (repr. Lynton 1993, no.22 in col.), while a diagonal line at bottom right suggests the edge of a table. The compositions of T04861 and of ‘trout’ relate quite closely to ‘1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet)’ (repr. Lynton 1993, no.31 in col.) in their overlapping forms and top-heaviness.

Both Morris and Nicholson were stimulated by the art they saw in Paris. It was there, in 1921, that Nicholson saw works by Picasso, some of which, at the time, he considered to be ‘completely abstract’ (letter to John Summerson dated 3 January 1944 and quoted in Summerson 1948, p.7). He recalled one example in particular which he thought dated from 1915. In a later letter (date not known) Nicholson sent Summerson a black and white reproduction of Picasso's ‘Man Leaning on a Table’, 1915–16 (repr. The Essential Cubism, exh. cat, Tate Gallery 1983, no.149 in col.), stating that it was similar to the painting he had seen in the Picasso exhibition at Paul Rosenberg's gallery in Paris in 1921 (see Lewison 1983, p.56; in this period Picasso showed with Paul Rosenberg in 1920, 1921 and 1924). The memory of Cubist paintings such as ‘Man Leaning on a Table’ could not have been far from Nicholson's mind when painting T04861 although, significantly, Picasso's paintings of this kind did not exclude the representation of an object or person.

In the light of a letter from Winifred Nicholson to her brother Wilfrid Roberts of 2 December 1921, Lewison recently suggested that Nicholson may have been mistaken in his memory of the Picasso and actually saw either ‘Three Musicians’, 1921 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) or the other version of that painting, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1993, p.95, ‘The Castagnola Years’, n.4). He has subsequently excluded this possibility and considers that Nicholson was correct in remembering having seen a work of the 1915–16 period. While Lewison originally thought that the reference in the letter to ‘green of young dog Mercury black and pure white’ indicated the presence of a black dog in the Picasso painting, he now accepts that the reference is to a green plant known as Dog Mercury.

In a letter to Winifred Nicholson of 8 December [1956] (private collection), Nicholson wrote that T04861 was ‘done (from stuck on papers)’, indicating that it was based on a papier collé (no works of this nature from this period by Nicholson are known to exist, although he made a number involving collage in 1933). This would explain the ragged edges of some of the forms. Nicholson would have known Picasso's and Braque's papiers collés but it is possible that another stimulus to his abstract paintings of this period was the papiers collés of Hans Arp. Although Arp's works consisted of broadly rectangular, cut shapes of paper, some of the pieces of paper had edges softened by tearing. Arp had been one of the leaders of the Dada movement at the end of the First World War. In discussing ‘abstraction, November’ in a review of the Seven and Five Society exhibition, the critic P.G. Konody castigated Nicholson for wasting ‘time on such dadaistic futilities’ (‘Art and Artists: The Seven and Five Society’, Observer, 7 December 1924, p.2). While Nicholson's abstract paintings were far from being ‘dadaistic’, Konody's rebuke may be an indication of a perceived affinity with the work of Arp. He would certainly have seen Nicholson's abstract work as being a provocative, almost deliberately destructive act of painting. References to Dada were rare at the time in the English press.

The painting was framed for the Tate Gallery exhibition in 1969 in a manner consistent with Nicholson's framing of the late 1960s. In the 1920s Nicholson did not mount his paintings on backboards but brought the frame to the edges of the canvas. The backboard was painted white by the artist or according to his instructions.

The title of the painting refers to the location in which the artist executed it - ‘in a King's Rd, Chelsea flat’ (letter to Charles Harrison dated 6 October 1968, Tate Gallery Archive) - and is not descriptive of what is depicted. Nicholson's studio was at 97 King's Road.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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