Partners in paint brought together once more

Jovan Nicholson
Jovan Nicholson
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A new exhibition has opened in Leeds celebrating a significant artistic marriage. Yvette Huddleston on Art and Life.

“WHEN I first started here, three years ago, this exhibition was on the horizon,” says Sarah Brown, curator at Leeds Art Gallery. “And I thought it would be very interesting.”

Brown is describing Art and Life, a new show opening at the gallery next week, which looks at the work of influential 20th century artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson.

It is a major international exhibition, with pieces – 95 in all – gathered together from public and private collections in the UK and Europe, and examines the artists’ work both individually and alongside the work of fellow artists and contemporaries Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray.

“It looks at the synergy between the five artists,” says Brown. “And in the bringing together of their works, and people seeing the pieces in relation to each other, it really reveals the influences those artists had on each other. There are some wonderful connections.”

The show has been curated by Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, which has meant that the gallery has had unprecedented access and insight into the archive history and work of the artists as well as their personal relationship. Brown has been delighted by Jovan’s involvement in the project.

“It is very rare that you get someone from the estate who is also a very well informed art historian,” she says. “It’s quite unique in that respect and for him it is really exciting that people will see some of the lesser known work as well as archive photographs and correspondence that hasn’t been published before.”

The exhibition spans the years 1920-1931 which is the period of Ben and Winifred’s marriage during which time they inspired each other and experimented with colour and form – often painting the same subject but from their own artistic perspective.

They separated in 1931 when Ben Nicholson met Barbara Hepworth (who was to become his second wife) and eventually divorced in 1938. Winifred moved to Paris in 1932 with their three young children but the estranged couple managed to maintain a working relationship despite the difficult circumstances of their break-up.

“Although they separated in 1931, their creative partnership continued long after that,” says Brown. “And it was mutually beneficial. There seemed to be a kind of respect for each other and their work.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a book detailing the friendships and shifting allegiances of the group featured in the show.

The main essay, by Jovan Nicholson, focusses on the way in which ideas flowed between the Nicholsons and Christopher Wood when they painted together in Cumberland and Cornwall, with particular emphasis on their meeting with Alfred Wallis in St Ives in 1928.

Art historian Sebasiano Barassi explores the Nicholsons’ visits to Paris, Italy and Switzerland in the early 1920s and potter and academic Julian Stair examines the importance of William Staite Murray, one of the most successful artists at that time. “The relationship between these five artists is fascinating,” says Brown. “And it is such rich territory, there are so many stories to tell.”

When we speak, Brown is just about to begin placing the objects into the gallery with Jovan Nicholson. “It’s very exciting,” she says. “We made a model of the gallery, almost like a little dolls’ house, and have been placing pieces in it in preparation. But what you forget, or don’t take into account, is the frame, the surface and also the particular architecture of the gallery. As soon as you see the works in the space, they have their own presence and the whole sense of scale is very important.”

The gallery walls have not been painted so that the pieces will appear in a white space as they would have done originally. “We are not using a colour to historicise the show,” says Brown. “And the works are being hung geographically through the time period it focuses on.” Brown has some particular favourites in the exhibition. “I really like Winifred’s abstract works,” she says. “And some of Ben Nicholson’s landscapes where you can see how his formal concerns come across and he is really reducing and paring everything down.”

After Leeds, the exhibition will tour to Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge – where many of the Nicholsons’ pieces are housed – and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London which also has a connection with the Nicholsons since they lived in Dulwich for many years. “What’s really great is that this is an exhibition that is starting in the North, then goes down to Cambridge and ends up in London,” says Brown.

Art couple at centre of wide circle

Winifred Roberts was born in Oxford in 1893 and trained at the Bryam Shaw School of Art. Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 in Buckinghamshire. He trained at the Slade in London, a contemporary of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. Ben and Winifred met and married in 1920. They worked together in Italy, France, Devon and Cornwall and spent their winters in the Swiss Alps. In 1923 they bought an old farmhouse in Cumberland where artist friends visited.

Art and Life, Leeds Art Gallery, Oct 18, 2013-to Jan12, 2014. A series of talks are also planned.