The pitcher in photo: the household objects that inspired the painter Ben Nicholson
In 1914, at age 20, British artist Ben Nicholson painted a perfect interpretation of a striped jug. Behind her is a sumptuous curtain and below, her own shadow reflection in a polished surface. Ten years later, the jug reappears, this time as a flat, striped rectangle in one of the artist’s first abstract works, “1924 (painting – trout)”.
Today, 40 years after Nicholson’s death, visitors to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester can view the jug, a piece of mid-19th century Staffordshire mocha, in an exhibition that features the artefacts Nicholson accumulated in its many studios – in London, Cornwall, Cumberland, Paris and Switzerland – exhibited alongside the paintings in which they appear.
They will first find him in a 1933 photograph of the Mall Studios studio in Hampstead, which he shared with sculptor Barbara Hepworth, his second wife. He sits on a shelf, surrounded by Hepworth linocuts of classical Greek profile, jars of brushes and paintings by Nicholson. And then they’ll see the jug itself on display, the light bouncing off its surface glaze.
It seems extraordinary that so many seemingly ordinary objects have survived: pewter cups, glass decanters, mugs, saucers, marinating jars, a Staffordshire pottery zebra, brass weights, a set of keys . But for Nicholson and many other artists before him, these everyday household items were the sources of inspiration.
In Paul Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, you see a long shelf of jugs, bowls and cups and a cane hanging from a hook, which the artist used to observe how colors changed with light. The contents of Matisse’s workshop toured the world in 2017 and 2018, and included a silver chocolate jar that appeared in paintings made over a 40-year period; it had been given to her as a wedding present in 1898.
In Nicholson’s case, he found the starting points of his artistic explorations, whether in landscape or abstraction, in the forms of dishes and tools, translating them into poetic games of lines and colors. The relatives who have inherited these objects have understood their value only too well, since they have preserved them with as much care as the paintings they inspired.
“It’s amazing that 40 years after his death these things are still here,” says Simon Martin, director of Pallant House. “The keys, his table, one would expect them to disappear. But they were recognized as important by the people who looked after them.
Nicholson was born into a family of artists. His father William was a bon vivant painter known for his still lifes and his many adventures. His mother Mabel Pryde, also an artist, died when Nicholson was 24, after which William married his son’s first love, Edie Stuart Wortley.
Ben Nicholson attended Slade Art College from the age of 16, where his classmates were Paul Nash and Dora Carrington. He would have spent more time playing pool than studying drawing from life. It was a visit to Paris in the early 1920s, where he saw the work of Picasso, which was far more influential. (A meeting with Mondrian in 1934 and the atmospheric quality of his work and workshop had the same effect.)
In 1920 Nicholson married Winifred Roberts, a successful plant and flower painter; The couple had three children. But in 1931 he had met Barbara Hepworth, then married to sculptor John Skeaping, and in 1932 he was sharing his studio in The Mall. While he had absorbed Roberts’ skillful use of color in his work, Hepworth acquired a more sculptural approach.
The Hampstead studio was a crossroads of life and art. The couple carefully organized the space and invited people to enter. They turned their linocuts into textile designs – there are some at Kettle’s Yard, the Cambridge home that collector Jim Ede turned into a “living museum” where he lived among ceramics and paintings and invited the public into .
They made curtains for the critic Herbert Read, an important champion of modernism. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to sell some models to Fortnum & Mason.
Nicholson’s preference was for a more discreet workspace, where he could live on his own, contemplating the objects around him. In his studio in Castagnola, Switzerland, in the early 1920s, which offered captivating mountain views, he had the windows blocked off to eliminate distraction.
At 5 Porthmeor Studios, in St Ives, which he took over in 1949, two years before his divorce from Hepworth (leaving her with triplets), he opted for a space with canopies rather than one overlooking the sea. .
Nicholson and Roberts had lived in a ‘modern’ way, which meant white walls and very little furniture, in part a reaction to the flamboyant Edwardian lifestyle he was born into.
His desire to “break all the sophistication around me,” which he declared early on, was reflected in the austerity of his work and his life. Disdainful of the personality cult that often accompanies success, he declined to be interviewed by reporters or to appear in a film, and asked some recipients to destroy letters.
While his contemporaries Hepworth and Henry Moore have their own museum and foundation respectively, Nicholson created his own destiny by being far from a household name.
In the late 1990s, Sarah Jane Checkland set out to write Nicholson’s biography. Most of the family refused to speak – according to, they said, to his wishes – and the letters were not shared. Although she managed to write a very detailed book, this exhibit is perhaps a more intimate portrait of her life.
“He spent so much time with them, studying them,” says Lee Beard, a Nicholson expert, of the 90 items on display, “and as you look at, for example, pieces of glassware with engravings and drawings hung nearby, you make any number of connections. It makes objects and works of art so alive.
For anyone struggling to find a way into abstract art, they offer a door. Most importantly, they provide a tantalizing glimpse into Nicholson’s long, productive, and slightly peculiar life.
“Ben Nicholson: From the Studio”, until October 24; pallant.org.uk