Winifred Nicholson

Flower Table


Not on display

Winifred Nicholson 1893–1981
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1128 × 802 mm
frame: 1225 × 895 × 65 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Carroll Donner Bequest 1985

Display caption

In the 1920s, Winifred and Ben Nicholson lived a simple, rural life at Bankshead in Cumberland. This work shows pots of flowers wrapped in white tissue paper and arranged on a white table, or butcher's block, in that house. The sunlit table and domestic plant pots take on the appearance of mystical objects on an altar and reflect the craving for a new spirituality and peace that followed the First World War. The sense of a higher reality beyond the mundane is further suggested by the dots of silver paint across the surface of the image.

Gallery label, July 2001

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Catalogue entry

Winifred Nicholson 1893-1981

T03960 Flower Table 1928-9

Oil on canvas 1128 x 802 (44 3/8 x 31 5/8)
Inscribed ‘FLOWER TABLE' on top stretcher bar and ‘Winifred Nicholson' on centre stretcher bar
Purchased from the artist's children Jake, Kate and Andrew Nicholson (Carroll Donner Bequest) 1985
Prov: Jake, Kate and Andrew Nicholson by descent from their mother, Winifred Nicholson 1981
Exh: Paintings by Winifred Nicholson, Leicester Galleries, March-April 1930 (5); Decade 1920-30, AC tour, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Feb.-March 1970, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, March-April 1970, Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, April-May 1970, Manchester City Art Gallery, May-June 1970, Bristol City Art Gallery, June-July 1970, Camden Arts Centre, Aug. 1970 (68); The Flowers of Winifred Nicholson, Crane Kalman Gallery, Feb.-March 1969 (14); Winifred Nicholson: Paintings 1900-1978, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh, Sept.-Oct. 1979, Carlisle Art Gallery, Nov.1979, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, Dec. 1979, Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Jan.-Feb. 1980, The Minories, Colchester, Feb.-March 1980, Penwith Gallery , St. Ives, March-April 1980 (16); [Judith Collins (ed.)] Winifred Nicholson, Tate Gallery, June-Aug. 1987 (not in cat.)
Lit: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, pp.74-5, repr. (col.). Also repr: Andrew Nicholson (ed.), Unknown Colour: Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, 1987, p.5 (col.)

Beginning with the seventh Seven and Five exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in January 1927, Winifred Nicholson started to exhibit paintings which depicted a group of four or more pots of living plants arranged on a table top. A painting of this type included in the seventh Seven and Five exhibition was entitled ‘Flowers - Sutton Veney' and it was reproduced in Drawing and Design, February 1927, p.45. At an exhibition which the artist shared with her husband Ben Nicholson and their friend Christopher Wood at the Beaux Arts Gallery in April-May 1927, she showed four paintings; ‘Flower Table No.1' (42), ‘Flower Table No.2' (43), ‘Flower Table and Barn' (45), and ‘Flower Table and Yard' (46). Then in March 1930 she exhibited T03960 in her exhibition at the Leicester Galleries. Thus, from titles in exhibition catalogues, the example of T03960, and one contemporary illustration, it appears that she executed six paintings between the years 1926 and 1930 on the theme of potted plants set on a table top. The present whereabouts of ‘Flowers - Sutton Veney' is unknown, but there are three other known extant works beside T03690 with the theme of the flower table. These three works are ‘Flower Table' c.1928-9 (private collection, oil on canvas, 721 x 921, 28 3/8 x 36 1/4, repr. Nicholson [ed.] 1987, p.134 in col. where it is entitled ‘Flower Table: Pots'), ‘Flowers in Pots, Dulwich' 1928 (The Dartington Hall Trust, oil on canvas, 444 x 572, 17 1/2 x 22 1/2) and ‘Still Life by a Window' c.1929 (Redfern Gallery, oil on canvas, 889 x 711, 35 x 28, repr. in Spring Exhibition 1988, exh. cat. Redfern Gallery, 1988 [p.7] in col.). The dates of these three extant works, although possibly not completely accurate, post-date the four works on the flower table theme which the artist exhibited in her Beaux Arts Gallery show in 1927, so her range of works on this theme appears to total nine. Research into this remains speculative, since Winifred Nicholson never signed or dated her paintings, as a matter of principle, and rarely inscribed them with titles contemporaneous with their execution. The title of ‘Flower Table' for T03960 was inscribed by the artist onto the top stretcher bar at a date probably much later than the late 1920s; this is apparent from an examination of the handwriting style of the artist, which increased in scale as she grew older.

T03960 shares some similar features with two out of the three additional paintings of flower laden tables. In T03960, as well as in ‘Flower Table' (private collection) and ‘Flowers in Pots, Dulwich' (The Dartington Hall Trust), the pots of flowers are arranged on the top of a white rectangular table which is set against a blank wall. The table in T03960 appears to be a sturdy and somewhat rustic wooden table, painted white, and it looks as though the same table, painted from a more frontal position, appears again in ‘Flower Table' (private collection). Because of the high viewpoint and closer focus of composition in ‘Flowers in Pots, Dulwich', it is not possible to ascertain whether this too depicts the same white painted table. In the years 1928-9, the period which covers the execution of T03960, Winifred Nicholson lived with her husband Ben in two houses, 20 Dulwich Common, London, a semi-detached suburban dwelling, and Bankshead, a seventeenth century stone farmhouse in the village of Banks, in Cumberland. Her painting activity is believed to have been much fuller in Bankshead than in London, because at Bankshead the artist was free of the heavy social round required of her in London. The artist's children feel that T03960 was painted at Bankshead rather than in London for the following reasons: a white table of a similar kind to that depicted was at Bankshead until recently; the room seen beyond the flower laden table appears to be simple and bare and would fit more with the known character of the artist's Cumbrian stone farmhouse than with her suburban house in London; the floors at Bankshead were furnished with a variety of Cumbrian rag rugs, whose decoration relied upon stripes, just like the edge of the red and black striped rug seen in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. When Winifred Nicholson moved to Bankshead in the early 1920s the Cumbrian rag rug cottage industry was in decline. She took a great interest in rag rugs, providing financial support, patronage, materials and patterns, and managed to stimulate new activity. Three, or possibly, all four pots of flowers on the table in T03960 are wrapped in sheets of white tissue paper. Two of the pots are similarly wrapped in ‘Flower Table' (private collection). The painting which Winifred Nicholson believed marked the beginning of her mature style was ‘Mughetti', c.1922 (private collection, oil on board, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1987, col. p.I) and this depicted a pot of lily of the valley plants wrapped in white tissue paper set on a window sill of the artist's home at that time, which was in the village of Castagnola, above Lake Lugano in Switzerland. In some autobiographical memories written in 1969 and entitled ‘Moments of Light', (Nicholson [ed.] 1987, p.37) Winifred Nicholson described the painting of ‘Mughetti' and the importance of the motif of the tissue paper:

Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley - Mughetti [sic.] - in a tissue paper wrapper - this I stood on the window sill - behind was azure blue. Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there - and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe. That picture painted itself, and after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill in cyclamen, primula, or cineraria - sunlight on lens, and sunlight shining transparent through leaves and through the mystery of tissue paper.

This passage reveals how important the white tissue paper wrapping around a pot of living flowers was to the artist. Being interested in colour theory, Winifred Nicholson was very aware that all colours are contained in white light, only being separated out into the spectrum when refracted. Also, she believed that the way to find colour in its most pure and saturated state was to look at, and try and capture in paint, the brilliant hues of flower petals. A painting which brought together light on white tissue paper in close proximity with brightly coloured flowers would be making a most positive statement about colour, and since, according to Winifred Nicholson, colour was the most important ingredient in a painter's life, then this would explain her phrase about the pot of living flowers wrapped in white tissue holding ‘the secret of the universe'.

This theme of flowers in pots wrapped in tissue paper, which was begun with ‘Mughetti' c.1922, and which constitutes the main subject of T03960, was used by the artist until the late 1940s. For the catalogue cover of her one-man exhibition of paintings at the Beaux Arts Gallery in April 1927, she chose the illustration of a painting entitled ‘Cyclamen and Primula' (repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1987, p.42 in col.), which depicts a pot of cyclamen besides a pot of primulas, set on the window sill of her Swiss mountain villa, each of the pots swathed in white tissue paper.

Contemporaneous with Winifred Nicholson's paintings of flower laden tables in simple surroundings are a few works of strikingly similar theme, executed by David Jones, a fellow member of the Seven and Five Society. Jones was proposed as a member of the society in 1928 by Ben Nicholson, and an example of a work from that year is Jones's ‘The Table Top'(Victoria and Albert Museum, pencil and watercolour, repr. David Jones, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1981, p.89). Douglas Cleverdon wrote an introduction for a catalogue of Jones's work, held at the National Book League in 1972, and in it he writes (p.8) of Jones's favourite subjects during the years 1928-32: ‘a table bearing a glass bowl or a jar filled with flowers, with the window and landscape beyond ... As one contemplates a number of them in turn, an inner significance emerges, symbolic or mystical, that gives an added power and intensity'. Thus, not only does Jones's choice of subject matter tally with Winifred Nicholson's at this time, but both are painting humble everyday onjects, such as those presented in T03960, which stand as symbols for more numinous objects on table tops in these same years, but his still lifes give greater emphasis to the harmony of relationships between colour, texture, form and space. The French term for still life - ‘nature morte' - better describes Ben Nicholson's work in this genre in the late 1920s, because Winifred Nicholson consistently chose to paint growing, living plants in her still lifes.

T03960 is on a stretcher which has been used before, and this is quite a common occurence in Winifred Nicholson's working practice. It is possible that the stretcher dates to the later 19th century, and may be the one that was given to her by her grandfather, George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, who gave her instruction in painting and drawing when she was young. Drawn lines in both charcoal and a blue-green crayon are present both under and over the paint, particularly in the area of the wrapped pots of flowers. Such lines can be seen in many other paintings by the artist throughout her career, a notable example being ‘The Island, St. Ives' 1928 (Dartington Hall Trust, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1987, p.81). The entry for ‘The Island, St. Ives' in the Tate Gallery exhition catalogue (p.81) describes how and why these graphic marks were made:

Curving pencil arcs can be seen all over the surface of the paint, particularly in the lighter tonality of the upper half of the canvas, revealing the way Winifred Nicholson approached the act of painting and the planning of a composition. She made sweeping gestures with a pencil or crayon in her hand, and these gestures resulted in a series of interlocking or overlapping graphic arcs. They do not necessarily relate to the layout of the composition as painted, but they helped her to stake out the web of connections revealed by looking at coloured objects in a certain light.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.224-7

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