Light Fantastic ; Winifred Nicholson Was Producing Her Luminous Still Lifes and Landscapes into Her Eighties, and Found Particular Inspiration in the Hebrides. A New Exhibition of Her Paintings in Edinburgh Conveys Their Magical Quality, Says SUE HUBBARD
Hubbard, Sue, The Independent (London, England)
"This is the place after my heart. I wonder if you would like it. Not a tree, not a bush. But grey boulders, grey rocks, grey stones, grey mountains. And bog in between... White glistening beaches and transparent sea all the way across to Eriskay... The [McInnes] family consists of a father and mother crofters... everyone sings, everyone talks Gaelic... There are 2 collies 3 puppies 2 black cats 4 cows 3 calves, innumerable hens and cocks and chickens and the point is to try to keep them out of the cottage - Peat fire, water carried from a well, everything as primitive as you want," wrote the painter, Winifred Nicholson to her son Jake, on the occasion of one of her visits to South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. Nicholson loved Scotland and made regular working trips there during the late 1940s and 1950s returning to the isle of Eigg in 1980. It suited her temperament. She felt a deep affinity with the landscape, the silvery Scottish light, the ever-changing weather.
Less well-known than her husband Ben, she was not particularly ambitious, and for most of her life her artistic career was overshadowed by his. After they were married in 1920 he asked her to change her name so there could be no confusion between them. But such attitudes had little to do with why Winifred painted, though their mutually influential artistic relationship lasted until her death, despite the hurt at the breakdown of the marriage when Ben left to live with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth.
Born in 1893 in Oxford, Winifred Roberts was brought up in an artistic milieu. Her mother, Lady Cecilia Maude Roberts, was an amateur watercolourist and her grandfather, George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle, to whom she was particularly close, was an artist and friend to many of the Pre- Raphaelites. Educated at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, she spent several months in 1919-20 in India with her sister Christina and her father, who was Under- Secretary of State. It was in India that she understood "how Eastern art uses lilac to create sunlight" and that colour and not just form could create light, shade and space. From 1932 until 1938 she and her children lived in Paris, where Nicholson acted as a conduit between English artistic circles and European Modernism. So rigid were the different schools that she recounts how "the abstract people" wouldn't speak to the surrealists, leaving the studio if any of them entered. For a period she, herself, flirted with abstraction, moving briefly away from the figurative painting that was her more usual mode of expression.
In 1938, due to the worsening situation in Europe she was forced to return to England, living in relative artistic isolation with her children and parents in their Cumbrian home, Boothby, where she could do little painting. However, as befitted her bohemian temperament she ran a smallholding, a school for local children, campaigned for the Liberal party and was secretary of the Northern Goat Society. She also spun and dyed wool, being no less interested in craft than in "fine art". It was in 1948 that she made her first working trip to Scotland, to the Isle of Skye with her three children, Jake, Kate and Andrew, spending a fortnight in Flodigarry, near the cottage where Flora MacDonald, the Jacobite heroine, had lived.
Nicholson's characteristic composition was a jam-jar or simple vase of freshly picked flowers, informally arranged and placed on a window sill with a panoramic vista of rolling countryside forming a backdrop. The window furniture would be largely excluded so the light would be tossed "like a shuttlecock" between near foreground and distance with no apparent middle ground in between. She was attracted to the subtleties of northern light because "the beams fall slantwise, and shine through things instead of directly on to them as in India or Italy".
Having grown up in Cumbria she was drawn to the pearly tones, the silvery misty greens of Scotland. …