Ben Nicholson OM

20 April 1979 (vertical stripe)


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Felt-tip pen and oil paint on hardboard
Support: 730 × 553 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1986

Catalogue entry

T04862 vertical stripe 20 April 1979 1979

Felt-tip pen and oil on hardboard 730 × 553 (28 3/4 × 21 3/4) on hardboard 1015 × 838 (40 × 33)
Inscribed ‘Nicholson | april 20–79 | (vertical stripe)’ on back of hardboard t.r. and various other inscriptions
Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1986
Prov: Estate of the artist
Exh: Ben Nicholson: Recent Works, Waddington Galleries, July 1980 (64, repr. in col.); Ben Nicholson Memorial Display, Tate Gallery, April–May 1982 (no catalogue, no number)
Repr: Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1991, no.142 (col.)

This is one of a series of small late works by Nicholson depicting still life objects, principally in outline. Although executed mainly in black felt-tip pen on a ground of off-white oil paint, the surface is stained in places with turquoise, pink-grey, yellow-brown and blue grey.

According to Angela Verren-Taunt, a close friend of the artist in the last decade of his life and who worked in the artist's studio at 2 Pilgrim's Lane in Hampstead at the time he executed the painting, six objects are depicted on a table. In a letter to the cataloguer of 6 September 1992 she described them, from left to right, as follows: a decanter with a stopper, a mug onto which Nicholson has inscribed a detail from a cut glass goblet (see below), ‘a rough primitive asymetrical Pre-Columbian pot’, a large pottery bowl and a form derived ‘from a similar sized glass hexagonal bowl’. The form at the bottom right was possibly derived from a mug.

Nicholson did not set up still lifes from which to draw but tended either to draw what was in front of him or to combine things which were scattered in different places about the room. Verren-Taunt stated that, ‘Ben drew what he thought the composition needed rather than what was literally there’. In a letter to the cataloguer of 5 August 1992 she remarked that Nicholson

had still life objects all around him in his studio and was very familiar with their different forms. He did not set up a ‘still life’ to work from as such, though his working table was often covered with objects. They were also on shelves and on every surface in his studio, so he only had to glance around - he was constantly moving things. He was very free ... with his interpretation of these forms. e.g. the central mug in ‘vertical stripe’ is a genuine mug shape but the series of fine lines came from a wine-glass he had.

This wine glass is depicted in ‘mountain scene 1979’ and ‘ivory 22 April 1979’ (repr. Waddington Galleries exh. cat., 1980, nos.53, 65 in col.). According to Verren-Taunt, the ‘angular shape [top left] might have been suggested by the piles of hardboard he had leaning against the wall. The curve [below it, bisected by a near vertical line] might have been suggested by a small round table he had, or the back of a chair, but it is just as likely to have been instinctive and not relate[d] to a particular object he could see’ (letter dated 5 August 1992). The shapes at top right were probably ‘suggested by the corner of the studio and boards leaning against the wall on top of his racks’ (letter dated 6 September 1992).

Still life was a constant theme throughout Nicholson's career, except in the 1960s when he devoted himself almost exclusively to abstract reliefs. By the late 1970s, however, he found relief carving too physically demanding and concentrated, instead, on drawing, using Japanese felt-tip pens over a wash or painted ground. These drawings were executed principally on paper but a small number, of which T04862 is an example, were made on plywood or board. Three others on a similar support are illustrated in the Waddington Galleries catalogue: ‘elephantine 1979’, (no.61), ‘goblet, jug and landscape’, (undated, no. 63) and ‘ivory’, 1979, (no.65). Of these, T04862 most closely relates to the last named in colouring, style and subject. In view of their shared motifs, colour and size, Nicholson regarded them as a pair.

Each object in ‘vertical stripe’ appears to have been drawn in one continuous movement with the exception of the handle of the central mug where Nicholson removed the felt tip pen from the surface towards the lower end and reapplied it. At places where the pen lingered there is a small build up of ink, for example, at the bottom left of the decanter.

The vertical stripe referred to in the title divides the painting in two parts. Nicholson painted a wash stripe in a number of late works - see, for example, ‘off brown and red and striped mug 1979’ (repr. Waddington Galleries exh. cat., 1980, no.56 in col.). According to VerrenTaunt, Nicholson's decision to incorporate a stripe in T04862 ‘was not a conscious design to split the plane but purely instinctive’ (letter of 5 August 1992).

In the same letter Verren-Taunt states that the support for T04862 was an

old worked-on board ... which he had had around for 20–30 years, waiting for the right idea to appear. He might well have scraped down an old painting with razor blades, then given it a coat of white paint and scraped it down again thus giving it a beautiful texture. In 1979 he rubbed, or brushed in some additional paint (thin oil), let it dry, and then drew with those fine Japanese felt pens. He might finally have rubbed in a little more colour.

Nicholson generally used Finland hardboard which was smooth on both sides. He would rub it with a fine sandpaper and then apply a coat of matt white oil paint. He then rubbed and scraped further and applied paint with a wide, hog's hair varnishing brush. Scraping was done with a Valet Auto Strop blade which is sharp on one side only. While it was generally Nicholson's practice to use matt white paint, in the case of T04862 there is evidence of the use of some white glossy paint, perhaps house paint. He also applied a light turquoise, a pinkish grey, a yellowy brown and a blueish grey which have been rubbed back to varying extents. These colours do not appear to be the remains of a previous painting but seem to have been deliberately applied at the same time as the matt, white surface paint, creating delicate tonal variations.

The hardboard was glued to the hardboard mount using a commercial glue named Brigatex. The mount was painted brown and has been textured with swirling marks. The mount is similar to many Nicholson made, or commissioned, in the period.

In the Tate Gallery Report 1986–8 the medium for this work was given incorrectly as oil on board. The title was given as ‘April 20–79 (vertical stripe)’. While it was Nicholson's practice to use this format for the titles of his reliefs and paintings, he followed the more conventional practice of title followed by date for drawings. Although T04862 is not a work on paper, Nicholson exhibited it alongside drawings and appears to have accorded it similar status.

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

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