by Roderick Conway Morris

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Tate, London
The Fisherman's Farewell by Christopher Wood, 1928

Modernist Art, the English Way

By Roderick Conway Morris
CAMBRIDGE, England 14 March 2014


British modernist art in the early 20th century, although not untouched by avant-garde developments on the Continent, did not tend to identify itself explicitly with such movements as Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism. But during the 1920s a group of aspiring, like-minded artists, who worked and exhibited together, shared the aim of producing forms of art that were experimental and innovative yet retained distinctly English characteristics.

The young art collector and critic Jim Ede showed remarkable perspicacity at the time by acquiring a substantial number of works by these newcomers. This was to constitute an important part of the collection of modern art that he installed at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, England, where from 1957 he transformed a row of derelict cottages into a residence-museum that he donated to Cambridge University in 1966. Ede died in 1990.

'Art and Life 1920-1931: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray,' at the temporary exhibition space at Kettle's Yard, revisits the lives and works of that group of artists, bringing together more than 80 works - 21 of which are exhibited for the first time - from 36 collections, public and private. The show is curated by the art historian Jovan Nicholson, grandson to Ben and Winifred, and continues through May 11, before traveling to Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from June 4 to Sept. 21.

Both Ben and Winifred came from artistic families. Ben's father was a successful still-life and portrait painter, his mother, too, an accomplished artist. Winifred's mother, maternal grandfather and great-grandmother were also painters. Ben entered the Slade School of Fine Art in London at the age of 16, continuing his education in France, Italy and Portugal. Winifred studied with her grandfather, then at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. In 1919-20 she traveled with her father, who was under secretary of state for India at the time, to India, Ceylon and Burma, which was to have a dramatic and colorful effect on her palette.

Ben and Winifred met in the summer of 1920 and married that autumn. After a tour of Italy, they rented a house near Lugano in Switzerland, where they spent the first of three winters painting, returning to England in between. The two artists were determined to break free of their privileged but conventional painting backgrounds. That they literally worked side-by-side is demonstrated in the first section of the show, 'Lugano and London,' in a drawing by Ben and a watercolor by Winifred, of a landscape at Tippacott in Devon, viewed from almost identical positions.

Winifred established her style considerably earlier than Ben did, as is evident in the brilliant still lifes of flowers that were to become her lifelong trademark. It is also clear, from a series of juxtapositions of their works, that Ben adopted from Winifred the use of bright flashes of color to enliven his compositions.

In 1923 the couple bought Bankshead, a farmhouse on Hadrian's Wall in the Cumberland district of northern England. The continual interplay in the two artists' development is further revealed in the next section of the exhibition, 'Cumberland,' featuring landscapes, still lifes and portraits.

In 1924, Winifred exhibited in a group show that included Paul Nash, Jacob Epstein and the potter William Staite Murray. As Murray would say in a later interview: 'Pottery stands between painting and sculpture in the plastic arts, it inclines to either and includes both.' Ben and Winifred saw in Murray a kindred spirit striving to transform traditional approaches - Ben declared one of Murray's ceramics to be 'one of the finest things I have ever seen' - and they went on to show with him regularly in the years that followed. The curator, Jovan Nicholson, recreates this fruitful association by punctuating the exhibition with some of Murray's most masterly products from this period.

In 1926, Ben and Winifred encountered another young artist, Wood, who was to become their closest friend and collaborator until the end of that decade.

Wood was invited by the Nicholsons to Cumberland in the spring of 1928. The rather austere life with the couple there contrasted markedly with bohemian existence that Wood had previously enjoyed for some years in Paris, where he had become friends with the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau and had developed an opium habit. But working together proved inspiring both to the Nicholsons and to Wood, who wrote to them on leaving: 'I am absolutely on the verge of the real thing after what I learned and saw at Bankshead.'

In the summer of 1928, Wood and the Nicholsons set off to discover Cornwall, where they all produced outstanding works, some of the most notable examples of which are displayed alongside those of Alfred Wallis in the next section of the show: 'Cornwall: Feock and St. Ives.' Initially staying in Feock, Ben and Wood made a trip to St. Ives nearby, where they came by chance upon Wallis, a self-taught maritime painter.

Wallis had worked as a deep-sea and inshore fisherman, and executed from memory striking and highly expressive images of sailing vessels and the sea, on rough pieces of cardboard using marine and household paints. Ben, especially, fell under Wallis's spell, and did much to help promote Wallis's work. As recorded by the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who became Ben's second wife after the breakup of his marriage to Winifred in 1930, and who moved with him to St. Ives in 1939, Wallis 'certainly didn't know how much we all learned and took off from him.'

Among the many memorable pictures on display is Wood's 'The Fisherman's Farewell,' a portrait of Winifred, Ben and their first son, Jake, which in retrospect was to take on a poignant quality.

In 1924, Ben had joined the Seven and Five Society, founded in 1919 and originally consisting of seven painters and five sculptors. Winifred, Wood and Murray also later became members.

The Seven and Five show in 1929 would be the last time that Ben, Winifred and Wood exhibited together. Wood shuttled between France and England, creating some of his finest pieces on display here, including 'Le Phare.' But in August 1930, having jettisoned his opium and pipes in an attempt to break his addiction, and probably suffering from withdrawal symptoms, the 29-year-old Wood threw himself under a train.

Yet a breezy and joyful coda to this absorbing exhibition is provided by one of the last pictures: Wallis's 'Three Sailing Boats.' Its dynamic geometry and restricted color scheme were echoed in Ben's later work, suggesting that Wallis's influence was to persist even after Ben began to devote himself to the abstract art on which his international reputation now rests.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023