Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)

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Lot 35AR
Ben Nicholson O.M.
(British, 1894-1982)
1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)

Sold for £ 224,750 (US$ 304,958) inc. premium
Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982)
1936 (gouache)
signed three times, initialled, inscribed and dated twice 'Ben Nicholson 1936/gouache/version 3/12 hand painted by B.N./ for Herbert + Ludo Xmas 1938/Nicholson/Mall Studios/Park hill Rd/NW3 London' (on the backboard)
gouache on card
38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)


  • Provenance
    A gift from the Artist to Sir Herbert and Lady Margaret 'Ludo' Read, 1938, thence by descent to
    Benedict Read (1945-2016)

    Leeds, City Art Galleries, Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art, 25 November 1993-5 February 1994, (col.ill.)

    'Think of them, for the moment, not as "pictures" but as "objects" – objects possessing a certain kind of life, objects absorbing and giving back life. If you start hanging a few abstract Nicholsons in a room you will soon find how powerful this life is. You will not be satisfied merely to hang the paintings at the salient points in the room: they will suggest their own positions, and wherever you place them they will have their own influence on the room. They become parts of the space you live in. The "identity between canvas and idea" has become absolute: painting crosses the conventional boundary between "art" and "life"'. (John Summerson, Ben Nicholson, Penguin Books, London 1948, p.10)

    The white reliefs begun by Ben Nicholson in 1934 and which he continued to produce through the 1930s are widely regarded as one of the most significant steps in English Modernism. One of these was exhibited for the first time in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, in their 1936 show Cubism and Abstract Art, the same year 1936 (gouache) (the present Lot) was painted. MoMA's Director at that time and organiser of the exhibition, Alfred Barr, has been compared to Sir Herbert Read in terms of his support and promotion of modern art. And he regarded both Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson as the foremost protaganists of Modernism in Britain during the 1930s. This was an important year therefore for Ben Nicholson's exposure to the international art world, one which helped to establish his reputation as one of the leading intellectual lights of pure abstraction.

    Nicholson had flirted with abstraction early on in his career. Of the few known canvases, 1924 (trout) (private collection) is undoubtedly the most inspired and successful (see fig.1). Along with 1924 (first abstract painting – Chelsea) (Tate collection) and 1924 (first abstract painting – Andrew) (private collection) their routes lie in the Cubist paintings Nicholson saw in Paris with his first wife Winifred during journeys to and from their home at Lake Lugano in Switzerland. They are evidence of Nicholson's early determination to break from the traditional methods of still life painting he had inherited from his artist father Sir William Nicholson. Although the phase was short-lived, probably owing to their negative criticism in the press at the time, their influence on the artist's psyche were immense. This can be seen when considering 1936 (gouache) in the context of these brief forays into abstraction. The organisation of squares and rectangles, and indeed the choice of colours, in Benedict's work strongly recalls those in 1924 (trout). The punchy note of red upper right in the latter has been enlarged and centred in the present work so that it commands the entire composition, and the neighbouring colours are all subordinate to it. Twelve years had passed between the execution of the two and Ben Nicholson had grown in stature and more importantly confidence. This can be seen by the prefect harmonies at play in 1936 (gouache) and the different, more refined picture surface, as Jeremy Lewison notes:

    'Like the white reliefs, however, the geometric paintings of the late thirties eschewed surface incident and maintained a smooth impasto. This was the only time in Nicholson's career when he did not favour a highly textured, weathered surface, presumably in order to depersonalise and purify the work so that colour and form became the subject. (Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press, London 1991, p.18).

    Ben Nicholson viewed the design and colour scheme of 1936 (gouache) as among the most satisfying he produced. Their genesis, for it is noted on the backboard of Benedict's gouache that his was version three out of twelve, lie in the oil painting of the same size and date now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is not known, however, whether the artist completed all twelve examples.

    The oil prototype was purchased directly from Nicholson by Albert Gallatin for his Museum of Living Art at New York University, which was to be America's first ever institution exclusively devoted to contemporary art. Gallatin's archives contain an illustrated letter from Nicholson (transcribed below) remarking that the composition is 'one of the best paintings' he had executed. The work was transferred in 1945 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    Feb 16 (1939)

    Dear Mr Gallatin,

    Thank you for your letter. I am, of course, very pleased that you remember one of my paintings + that you would like to have it for your museum of Living Art. I think the one you are referring to be an oil painting (sketch enclosed) 20 x 15, + I still have it here.

    I regard it as one of the best paintings I have done (I have recently made some gouaches from it) + I should feel it very representative of my work which is of course important from my point of view if it is to be included in your important collection.

    I should be willing to reduce it from its original price of 35 to 25; would you consider that a fair reduction?

    I must pass on this good news to Mondrian, that is first class news that Valentine has sold two paintings by him.

    With all best wishes,

    Ben Nicholson.

    The reference to Piet Mondrian in the final sentence reminds us of the special relationship he and Nicholson enjoyed during the run up to the Second World War. Nicholson first met Mondrian in his Parisian studio during 1933, which proved a significant moment, as Sarah Jane Checkland remarks. 'After taking his leave, Ben stumbled out, stunned, into a café outside. Later he recalled how he sat there for ages "on the edge of a pavement almost touching all the traffic going in & out of the Gare Montparnasse", and experienced "an astonishing feeling of quiet & repose". Soon he concluded that Mondrian's recent work was "the first clearly defined step" in art since Cubism and, as such, the "most important event of today"' (Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson, the Vicious Circles of his Life & Art, John Murray, London 2000, pp.132-133).

    Five years later, as political tension mounted in Paris prior to the outbreak of war, Mondrian plagued by illness, sought a new home. It was Nicholson who responded first, and with the help of Winifred they accommodated him in a bed-sitting room at 60 Parkhill Road in Belsize Park, North London, where Ben's studio was located, in the garden. Mondrian spent just over a year in London before his move to New York shortly following the outbreak of war, and considered Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth among his closest friends. Jeremy Lewison evaluates the significance of Mondrian's year in London on Ben perfectly:

    'While undoubtedly Mondrian made a great impact on Nicholson, particularly in regard to the poise and balance of his paintings and the use of flat areas of colour, Nicholson's works of the late thirties should be seen as much as a natural development out of his own work rather than as the assimilation of Mondrian's influence...The colours are both primary and tonal mixtures and, while divided into strict geometric shapes, they are not controlled by a grid. Such paintings seem to declare an interest in the space creating characteristics of colour in contrast to the theosophical intentions behind Mondrian's (Op.Cit.,p.18).
Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)
Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)
Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)
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