Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982) came from a family of artist and creative types. He first fell in love with Cornwall on a visit to St. Ives 1928 where he was also taken with the primitive painting style of Alfred Willis. It is said that Nicoleson and fellow artist Wood chanced on the work of Willis as they passed by his cottage and saw many paintings nailed to the wall through an open door. Willis had no formal training as an artist but lived a life closely connected to the sea. Working on deep sea trawlers from a very young age then going on to become a Marian scrap merchant. He turned to painting aged 70 to help detract from the recent death of his wife. Willis painted mostly from memory. His chosen subject was the sailing ships he had lived and worried with all his life and the country side and shore line he knew so well. For him the paintings where about trying to preserve the old ways of life as a reaction to the introduction of steam engine driven trawlers and the further industrialisation of the fishing industry. Willis preserved the sailing ships and the fishing life of old by depicting still ships set in sea’s of paint. Nicholson was taken with the authenticity and purity of the paintings.
Alfred Willis Used a limited pallet from a cheep paint box he had acquired. He mostly painted on the back of boxes or bits of old creates as he lived in poverty. Sadly he died the same way without selling any paintings in his life time. Thanks to his discovery by Nicoleson he is to this day an influential artist in St. Ives.
It’s interesting for me to come across his work as when last in St. Ives I was struck by this ‘naive’ style with a dream like sense of perspective favoured by some of the current artist working there. Now I can see it is a nod to Alfred Willis.
Nicholson along with sculptor Barbara Hepworth became themost influential artist in the first st. Ives school. Although he started of painting striate landscapes or still life’s Nicoleson, influenced by Mondrian, started to combine the two in a semiabstract style. His earlier work in London had took a very modernist style with geometric manmade form void of colour was his preoccupation.
Nicholson produced some sculptures and low reliefs that look more like Hepworth handy work.
His later paintings of still life’s with landscapes in the background often take on a similar naive style to Willis combined with a modernist/cubist twist from the influence of contemporary and friend Mondrian.
Nicholeson uses different visual textures, some of which look like they could be footage. He also uses different forms of mark making with different media in the same picture. Looking at the above images I can see what looks to be pencil scribbles, wax crayon or oil pastel rubbings, painted areas in smooth or dry brush effect. Maybe even some charcoal or graphite stick side round the edge.
Compositionally speaking Nicholeson seems to give equal importance to the objects in the still life foreground and those in the landscape background. He seems to draw a comparison in the two scenes by using simple flat geometric shapes to describe the too views.
For me the still life groupings help to give a sense of the artist working and viewing the scenery behind the still life’s. This shows the relationship between the artist and the environment. Something which I feel would be lost if the images where purely of the landscapes.
Nicholson choses a natural muted earthy pallet probably taken from the landscape in which he lived. Again I am remind of Willis similarly muted tones.
Around 1950 Nicholson work progressed into becomes increasingly abstract. Simplified line drawings with a Cubist sense viewing objects from a different view point on the same page. He swings back towards the modernist ideals of geometry and simplicity that interested him a as young artist. He still uses still life’s and landscapes as the Vehicle for his interpretations. He continued to work in this style for the rest of his life.
A quick Nicholson inspired drawing from the kitchen window.