Ben Nicholson OM

1934-6 (painting - still life)


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint and gesso on canvas
Support: 407 × 510 × 20 mm
frame: 572 × 675 × 66 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995


First exhibited in March 1937, this painting is related to earlier still-lifes, in particular 1933-35 (still life with bottle and mugs) (private collection, reproduced Lewison 1991, pl.74 in colour). The double date indicates that the basis of the painting was a canvas of 1934 that Nicholson rubbed down and transformed into an entirely new painting in 1936. Holes in the canvas resulting from heavy abrasion are visible in several places.

The composition consists of a complex arrangement of abstract elements that co-exist with figurative references of varying ambiguity. For example, the long serpentine line that travels down the right side of the picture is also easily read as a mug handle in profile; the trapezium in the upper centre is legible as a glass or cup, the curved line linking the two ends of its upper edge suggesting a rim. It is more difficult to ascribe a specific figurative reference to the circular shape to the left of centre, though it might allude to a plate of some sort. These abstract shapes and figurative objects are presented within a rectangle that may also be seen as a table top. The line slicing though the curve of the mug handle marks out the right edge of the rectangle. It then delineates a regular rectangle round the rest of the picture until it reaches the top right hand corner where it is unresolved. The short stripes of white and brown protruding from the rectangle's lower edge may indicate table legs.

Nicholson achieves spatial ambiguity in the painting partly by scouring its surface, exposing the many layers of paint and revealing the real depth of the canvas surface. The delicate tonal and textural modulations the technique creates are contrasted elsewhere by area of intense, flat colour. These blocks of colour refute any sense of depth apart from the illusory one created by colour contrast. The central white stripe, for example, appears to be hover over the grey section running along its bottom edge and a little way up its left side. The use of an extended palette to create complex spatial relations has been seen as an important development in Nicholson's still lifes and abstract paintings of the 1930s.

The painting formerly belonged to Sir John Summerson, the architectural historian and the author of the first monograph on Ben Nicholson, published by Penguin books in 1948. Summerson was married to Elizabeth Hepworth, sister of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was Nicholson's second wife.

Further reading:
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, reproduced p.76, pl.72 (colour)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1993, p.147-8

Toby Treves
May 2000

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Display caption

Nicholson began this painting a year after Jean Hélion invited him to join the important international group Abstraction-Création, based in Paris. Despite the group’s emphasis on pure abstraction, Nicholson developed a hybrid style of figuration and abstraction.

This picture is an example of his successful integration of representational and abstract elements in his work. Although there are indications of a handle, goblet, mug and plate, these areas also read as flat geometric shapes.

Gallery label, September 2004

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