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A Private Family Portrait: Ben Nicholson and his Artist Relatives
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Alice Strang explores the artistic legacy of the Nicholson family using works from our collection of Modern British art.
Ben Nicholson was part of an exceptionally artistic family. His parents were the painters William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde Nicholson, his first wife was the artist Winifred Roberts Nicholson and his sister-in-law was the designer E. Q. Myers Nicholson. He had many other artist relatives, but works by these four, as well as by Ben himself, are on loan to Pallant House Gallery from private collections and together they make a unique family portrait.
William Nicholson (1872-1949)
William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde met whilst studying at Hubert von Herkomer’s art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. They married in 1893 and had four children: Ben, Tony, Nancy and Kit, who became an artist, soldier, designer and architect respectively. Following Mabel’s death in 1918, William married Edie Stuart Wortley. They were given the Manor House, Sutton Veny, Wiltshire as a wedding present by her father and moved there in 1923.
After extensive renovations, including painting its exterior, the house was renamed ‘The White House’ and is the subject of William’s The White House, Sutton Veny of about 1925. As his biographer, Patricia Reed, has pointed out, it is painted on a wooden plank and shows the north-west façade of the house. William’s son Kit can be seen on the lawn, silhouetted between apertures in the elevation. The image is realised using a muted palette and is divided into three horizontal bands, of garden, building and sky. The artist’s home is modestly and affectionately presented within its immediate surroundings. It is personalised by the inclusion of his son and the family dogs, Gypsy and Picky, who was named after Picasso*.
Mabel Pryde Nicholson (1871-1918)
Mabel Pryde was born in Edinburgh. Following her training at Herkomer’s and marriage to William, she maintained her own practice amidst the domestic responsibilities of raising four children and multiple house moves. She sent work to group exhibitions such as those staged by the New English Art Club and the National Portrait Society and in 1912 had a solo exhibition at the Chenil Gallery, London.
Mabel frequently painted her children and was punctilious about paying them modelling fees. Portrait of Ben Nicholson Dressed as a Soldier comes from a series of such works, in which her sitters are seen wearing costumes and with accessories from the family’s dressing-up box. Set against her favoured black background and realised in a square format, the teenaged-Ben’s face and hand provide the focal points of the composition. He is depicted in part-profile and with great tenderness, whilst his expression is tentative rather than combative as the title might suggest. Following Mabel’s death in 1918, Ben and Nancy organised a memorial exhibition of her work, which was held at the Goupil Gallery in 1920**.
Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
Ben Nicholson met and married Winifred Roberts in 1920. The first years of their marriage were spent living between Lugano, Paris, London and Cumberland. They began to exhibit in the English capital and were elected members of the Seven and Five Society, an exhibiting group established in 1919. Whilst pregnant and installing a solo show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London, Winifred fell and broke her back. However, she recovered and the couple’s first child, Jake, was born in 1927.
Ben’s Portrait of Winifred and Jake Nicholson is a compassionate portrayal of his wife and son. Closely cropped to concentrate on their adjacent faces and the baby’s size compared to his mother’s body, the image is one of love and protectiveness. Winifred’s focus is on her points of contact with the swaddled child, from supportive hand to touching cheeks. Jake looks directly at the artist, establishing the father-son relationship. Form is lightly realised and is emphasised by curves, from that of Winifred’s haircut to her collar and the baby’s bent arms. A hint of a window behind them provides a sense of location and the source of the gentle light which illuminates this intimate image.
Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981)
Ben’s brother, Christopher ‘Kit’ Nicholson, was born in 1904. He read Architecture at Jesus College, University of Cambridge and at Princeton University in America. In 1931 he married E. Q. Myers and two years later established his own practice in London. Amongst his realised buildings of the 1930s was a studio for the artist Augustus John at Fryern Court, Fordingbridge, Hampshire and Kit’s Close, Fawley Green, Oxfordshire for the rheumatics specialist Dr Henry Warren Crowe. Kit resumed his practice following service during the Second World War. However, he died in 1948 whilst flying as part of the British team during the World Gliding Championship contest in Samaden, Switzerland.
Winifred’s Portrait of Christopher Nicholson dates from about 1928. That year Kit designed a garden house for her father Charles Roberts at Boothby, Brampton, Cumbria. Winifred painted this portrait of her brother-in-law in her and Ben’s home in Dulwich, London, to where they had recently moved. He is seen half-length, seated and engrossed in reading a book. This activity is emphasised by the dynamic between its bright pink cover, placed at the centre of the canvas and the sitter’s face at the upper centre, which is realised with more detail than any other passage in the painting. The play of fingers on book cover and lap, the curve of arms and crossed legs and the combination of high colour with softer tones, creates an atmosphere of lively absorption.
E. Q. Nicholson (1908-92)
E. Q. Myers was born in London. She studied briefly at the Slade School of Fine Art, before learning batik in Paris and working for the designer Marion Dorn. She met Ben and Winifred through her parents. They introduced her to Kit in 1930 and they married the following year. After Kit set up his practice, E. Q. worked as his secretary, whilst continuing to design and print fabrics.
In 1941, E. Q., Kit and their three children, moved to The Mill House, Fordingbridge, Hampshire (near to Augustus John), where they lived until 1947. The artist John Craxton was a frequent visitor and recalled how E. Q. transformed the dreary interiors with white paint, eclectic furniture and paintings and textiles by the extended family***.
E. Q. started to paint during the Second World War and The Mill House Garden is a view of her garden depicted from an upstairs window. This high viewpoint allows the viewer to see above and beyond the crescent-shaped hedge, around which paths divide up areas of varied planting. Realised in pen, ink and gouache on paper, the image has a foundation of grey, structure provided by black outlines and consists of layered white combined with shades of green and lime. It may be a winter scene, captured under light or melting snow, in both broad brushstrokes and fine detail.
These five works by Ben Nicholson and four of the members of his extended artistic family are all highly personal and are on long-loan to Pallant House Gallery. Together they form a private family portrait of the artist whose work is celebrated in Ben Nicholson: From the Studio exhibition, which runs at the Gallery from 26 June until 24 October 2021.
Alice Strang is an award-winning art historian and curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Want to know more about Ben Nicholson? Check out our blog on his love of still-life painting.
You can see more works by members of the Nicholson family, including William, Mabel, Winifred and E.Q. in our Permanent Collection displays.
* See Patricia Reed, William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Modern Art Press Ltd, London 2011, p. 417, no. 509.
**See Patricia Reed and Alice Strang, ‘Mabel Pryde Nicholson’ in Ed. Alice Strang, Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2015, p. 86.
***See ‘Chronology’, Ed. Richard Morphet, E. Q. Nicholson: Designer and Painter, The Cygnet Press, London 1990, unpaginated.