Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Art and Life: 1920-1931: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis & William Staite Murray

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Art and Life: 1920-1931: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis & William Staite Murray

Article excerpt

Credit: Andrew Lambirth

Art and Life: 1920-1931: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis & William Staite Murray

Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, until 11 May

This exhibition examines a loosely knit community of artists and their interaction over a decade at the beginning of the last century. It is centred around the marriage of Ben and Winifred Nicholson (which began to split up in 1931), involves their crucial joint-friendship with Christopher Wood and a fruitful exhibiting relationship with William Staite Murray, topped off by the all-pervading influence of a true original, Alfred Wallis, Cornish fisherman, marine-stores dealer and compulsive painter. The intellectual and artistic meeting of these individuals was a formative impulse in the development of Modernism in England; and it could be said -- with some justification -- that they brought out the best in each other. Certainly the exhibition has been selected and arranged to do just that.

What's so clever about the hanging is the way even the visitor with some previous knowledge of these artists is provoked into thinking, 'Well, who's this by?' Except for Wallis, whose naturally primitive approach is difficult to confuse, the closeness of the other three painters at this point in their careers means that you not only need to study each picture intently before looking at its label, but that when you do, you are still likely to be surprised by the identity of the artist. Clear-cut divisions are further blurred by all three painting the same or similar subjects. For instance, the show begins with two versions of Tippacott in Devon: a blue and green watercolour by Winifred on the left and a pencil drawing by Ben on the right. Aside from the difference in colour, the most noticeable thing is the similarity of direct structural approach.

The next group features a couple of flower paintings by Winifred (one of her specialities), flanking 'Cortivallo, Lugano' by Ben, a marvel of landscape minimalism and clarity. Here you can see his distinctive combination of oil and pencil, in which the pencil is not just under-drawing to be covered up by paint, but an expressive part of the final mark-making of the image. (Later Winifred can be observed borrowing this technique, though she tended to structure her work through colour rather than line.) On the opposite wall is Ben's '1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)', looking a little like a Matissean collage of cut and torn paper. To the left, by way of contrast, hangs a boldly abstracted hot landscape by Winifred, 'Castagnola (Red Earth)', and to the left of that is Ben's cool/warm seascape of Dymchurch, in Kent, painted while staying with Paul Nash. Unlike Nash, who painted the sea wall and promenade, Ben looked straight out to sea and tipped up the shore and water like a table-top to run flatly up his canvas.

There are so many good paintings already on view that it's almost possible to overlook the remarkable pots by William Staite Murray, yet the first cabinet has three beauties in it, particularly the stoneware bowl 'Blossom' and the vase 'Roundabout', with its merry-go-round horses. Herbert Read always said that you should judge the art of a country by its pottery, to gauge 'the fineness of its sensibility'. William Staite Murray (1881-1962) saw himself not as a potter, but as an artist who made pots. For him, pottery existed somewhere between sculpture and painting, partaking of both and capable of contributing to their development. …

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