Ben Nicholson


Ben Nicholson (b. 1894, Denham, England; d. 1982, Hampstead, England) was a British abstract painter, printmaker and draughtsman famed for his geometric ‘white reliefs’ executed in the 1930s. Nicholson abstracted and purified natural forms, arranging them in elegant geometric compositions. His style is noteworthy for its muted, earthy colours, subtle shadows cast by carved reliefs, and formal play of line and volume. A leading British modernist artist and disseminator, along with Henry Moore, Nicholson was receptive to the avant-garde developments in continental Europe. In the early 1930s he regularly travelled to Paris where he visited the studios of Picasso, Arp, Brâncu┼či, Braque and Mondrian. Through close association with these artists, Nicholson married modernism with the tradition of landscape and still-life which he had inherited from his father, the painter Sir William Nicholson. From 1939 to 1958, Ben Nicholson and his then wife Barbara Hepworth lived in St Ives, Cornwall, a fishing village noted for the quality of its light. Nicholson was a key figure in the ‘St Ives School’ of artists which also included Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost, among others.


Nicholson briefly studied at the Slade School in the period 1910–11. His first solo show was held at the Adelphi Gallery in London in 1922. In 1937 he was editor of ‘Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art’, a monograph which extolled mathematical principles of representation. Helped by wide international exposure in British Council tours during the 1940s and 1950s and by the championing of the writer Herbert Read, Nicholson’s work rapidly gained international attention. In 1951 he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Time-Life Building at the Festival of Britain. In 1952 Nicholson won first prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. He was awarded the first Guggenheim International Painting prize in 1956, and the International Prize for Painting at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1957. Nicholson represented Great Britain at the 1954 Venice Biennale, together with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held, including shows at the Tate Gallery in 1954–5 and 1969, Kunsthalle Berne in 1961, Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas in 1964, and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 1978. In 1968, Nicholson was awarded the Order of Merit from HM the Queen in 1968. After his death in 1982 major exhibitions were held at the Fundación Juan March, Madrid, touring to the Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (1987), and the Tate Gallery, London, travelling to the Musée d’Art Moderne, St. Etienne (1993–4). In 2012, Courtauld Gallery, London, hosted Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel.

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