Who Are They?

Who is Ben Nicholson?

Meet the artist who turned the world he saw around him into simple flat shapes...squares, triangles and circles

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘Foxy and Frankie (1)’ 1933
Ben Nicholson OM
Foxy and Frankie (1) 1933
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2019. All rights reserved, DACS

This artwork is called Foxy and Frankie. It looks like a picture of two geometric squiggle creatures! They are kind of silly...who are they?

Anonymous, ‘Photographs of Ben Nicholson holding his cat, Foxy’ [c.1955]
Anonymous
Photographs of Ben Nicholson holding his cat, Foxy [c.1955]
Tate Archive
© Charles Gimpel Estate

Foxy is Ben Nicholson's cat! (We're not quite sure who Frankie is...).

Ben Nicholson was a British modernist painter who made abstract drawings and paintings that feature lots of squares, circles and rectangles. They are very simple and flat. He often looked at things in the real world (such as his cat Foxy) and transformed them using abstract shapes.

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)’ c.1923–4
Ben Nicholson OM
1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea) c.1923–4
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2019. All rights reserved, DACS

Here is the first abstract painting Ben Nicholson ever made. What do you think of it? Do the shapes and colours remind you of anything?

This picture is painted on canvas, but he later painted onto wooden boards. He would use a razor blade to scrape back the paint so that the pictures look weather beaten and old, as if they have been eroded by time.

Anonymous, ‘Photographs of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the Mall studio’ [c.1932]
Anonymous
Photographs of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the Mall studio [c.1932]
Tate Archive

Ben Nicholson was born in England in 1894. His father was a very famous and eccentric artist called William Nicholson and had a great influence on him.

Ben Nicholson married the artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth. They often worked together and were inspired by each other's art.

Do you work with friends and family? Have you ever tried drawing or painting a picture, or making a sculpture with someone else?

Pablo Picasso, ‘Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle’ 1914
Pablo Picasso
Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle 1914
Lent by the National Gallery 1997
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2019
Ben Nicholson OM, ‘1945 (still life)’ 1945
Ben Nicholson OM
1945 (still life) 1945
Tate
© Tate

While he was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Ben Nicholson discovered cubism. Cubism was a style of art invented in around 1907. Cubist artists used geometric shapes and forms to suggest objects, landscapes and people. Cubism inspired Ben Nicholson to start experimenting with new modernist ideas.

Look at the two artworks above. Can you see how the cubist style of Pablo Picasso's painting has inspired Ben Nicholson's style?

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘June 1937 (painting)’ 1937
Ben Nicholson OM
June 1937 (painting) 1937
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2019. All rights reserved, DACS
Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red’ 1937–42
Piet Mondrian
Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42
Tate

Another huge influence on Ben Nicholson was the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. In 1934 Nicholson visited Mondrian in his studio in Paris. He was very impressed with the feeling of light Mondrian created in his abstract works. Nicholson began to make paintings inspired by Mondrian using primary colours and tones of blue, grey and white.

Look at the two paintings above. Can you see any similarities between Nicholson’s painting and the one by Piet Mondrian?

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘1939-44 (painted relief)’ 1939–44
Ben Nicholson OM
1939-44 (painted relief) 1939–44
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2019. All rights reserved, DACS

Until the Second World War many people thought Nicholson’s paintings were outrageous and he struggled to make a living from selling them. In 1940 he moved to St Ives in Cornwall where he studied the subtle colours of the landscape. He began to find his own style that reflected the greys, browns and greens of the countryside.

Other artists who were also interested in abstract art also moved to St Ives, and soon there were many artists living in the little fishing village and they became known as the St Ives Group.

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall)’ 1943–5
Ben Nicholson OM
1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) 1943–5
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2019. All rights reserved, DACS

Do you see the boats in this picture? I wonder where Ben Nicholson painted this? Why do you think he put the jugs and cups in the front of the painting?

Nicholson died in 1982 and by then he was considered to be one of Britain’s best artists who had introduced many new and exciting ideas about modern art to Britain.

What do you think of this work? It is a bit less abstract than some of his other artworks isn't it?

Do you like Ben Nicholson's art? Does it inspire you?

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