Ben Nicholson 1894-1982

Provenance

The Artist

Dartington Hall, Devon, 1963, gifted by the artist

With Waddington Galleries, London

Jennifer Pinto Benzaquen, New York, c. 1993

Private Collection

Literature

Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson: Work Since 1947. Vol. II, 1956, Lund Humphries, cat. no. 44 (illus.)

Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, 1993, Phaidon, cat. no. 276, p. 290 (col. illus.)

In May 1955 (Green Chisel), Ben Nicholson evoked a crowded table top of objects. Using his pencil to incise the paint surface, he constructed layer upon layer of vessels. The work is executed in his inimitable style of outlines, a style that was underpinned by his talents as a draughtsman. The lines of the vessels – straight and arced alike – were applied freehand, a fact which accounts for the complex, organic, all-over composition. By suppressing detail and retaining only the stylised outline of the vessels, Nicholson was able at once to flatten the picture space and suggest a bustling table arrangement.

This approach to picture-making was entirely Nicholson’s own, though it owed a debt to the tableau-objet (picture-object) puns of his Cubist precursors such as Picasso, Braque and Gris. (The best example of Cubist puns is Picasso’s 1912 Still Life with Chair Caning, with its rope frame and collaged caning.) It was those artists that Nicholson admired and sought out during a formative visit to Paris in his youth, sometime in the early 1920s. His incised canvases of the late 1940s and 1950s represent a continuation of the Cubist project, blurring the distinction between a picture and the object which it depicts. In May 1955 (Green Chisel), Nicholson drew attention to the physical qualities of the canvas by using a fast-drying glue-based medium as a ground; on this surface, his pencil markings appear to float on the surface, suggesting the ‘real presence’ of the vessels themselves and presenting his painting as an object-like equivalent.

Ben Nicholson was a prolific collector of tableware. Photographs of his studios in London and Cornwall show the eclectic mixture of mugs, jugs, glasses and beakers that he accumulated. He followed the example of his father, the painter William Nicholson, arranging and rearranging these vessels and using them as a prompt for his paintings. Aside from the eponymous green chisel, perhaps a reference to the wedge-like shape at the lower right edge of canvas, the baroque curl of jug handles proliferates over the surface in different sizes and tesserae – a unique mixture of modernist clarity and latter-day Edwardian décor.