This is a lovely little exhibition, just two rooms, which does very clearly and succinctly what it sets out to do. It explores the artistic collaboration between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and their friends Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray in the 1920’s and thirties. It was a close artistic relationship which even survived the end of their marriage and looking around at the work on show it is easy to see why. They shared some of the same subjects and taught and learned from each other. A quick glance is enough to let you know which of them painted each picture but at the same time there is a kind of fellow feeling between them. Winifred’s work is more colourful and has a romantic sensibility while Ben’s is cool, clear and still. Right from the start his more limited palette and concentration on form is heading towards the abstraction which he explored later on. When standing in front of their two paintings of the same subject, like those in the exhibition of a farm on Northrigg Hill, these differences are very clearly laid out in front of you. It is good to imagine the two of them side by side as they worked, sharing ideas and thoughts. My favourite picture in the exhibition, as a regular beach wanderer, was Ben Nicholson’s beach landscape of Dymchurch in Kent, which evokes the light and space and the flat planes at the edge of the sea.
The other thing which is shown very beautifully in the exhibition is exactly why Ben Nicholson was so thrilled by the work of Alfred Wallis, a native Cornish fisherman who taught himself to paint late in life after his wife’s death. Alfred’s paintings have the same coolness, stillness and honesty as Nicholson’s own. He had naturally what Ben was searching for in his own work. Alfred’s schooner and icebergs c1928 could almost be a Nicholson with it’s simple sweeping lines and gracefulness of form which fits the triangular shape of the card perfectly, and there is a Nicholson, also painted on card, which returns the compliment.
I don’t like the work of Christopher Wood so much, although there is a semi nude female portrait from 1928, The Blue Necklace, which achieves the same stillness and presence as the work of Nicholson and Wallis while the woman gazes out enigmatically. I like William Staite Murray’s pots very much, they have the same egotism and confidence as the man who made them and it was good to see The Bather, my favourite from York Art Gallery’s collection again.
This small exhibition is a great way to see some of the work of the St Ives school, particularly in its early days and get an overview of what they were doing.