Casting a Cold Eye

By Shone, Richard | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Casting a Cold Eye


Shone, Richard, The Spectator


BEN NICHOLSON: THE VICIOUS CIRCLES OF HIS LIFE AND ART

by Sarah Jane Checkland John Murray, 25, pp. 486

The preface and acknowledgments to this first biography of Ben Nicholson, who died in 1982, include a scarcely veiled attack on the painter's family and executors for their refusal to co-operate with the author. Not only are there no quotations from the scores of letters from Nicholson to his first and second wives, Winifred Nicholson, nee Roberts, and Barbara Hepworth, but there are no reproductions of the artist's work among the illustrations (hence the pastiche Nicholson on the jacket). Other permissions were withheld and certain key witnesses stayed silent. While some may condemn Nicholson's heirs for this implacable opposition, others will surely agree, once they have read the book, that they were right to hold out against the author. The matter is complicated by the fact that Sir Alan Bowness, husband of Sarah, the daughter of Nicholson and Hepworth, has executive powers ranging over his in-laws' estates though not over the bulk of Nicholson's papers and letters held in the Tate Gallery Archive, over which the Tate has jurisdiction. And Leslie Waddington, the artist's last dealer, oversees the copyright in the reproduction of Nicholson's work. Bowness himself has long been engaged on a book on Hepworth (hence the incomplete nature of Sally Festing's 1995 biography of the sculptor). Children and grandchildren have taken one side or the other.

I think the family was fearful for the present project on several counts. If Sarah Jane Checkland had been given carte blanche, not only would it have pre-empted Bowness's own work but it would have flown in the face of Nicholson's and Hepworth's expressed wishes: the former wanted no biography, the latter asked her son-in-law to write hers. I am sure it was from no particular desire to keep family linen clean or lock skeletons safely in the cupboard that the book was not given their blessing. No, the problem lay with Checkland whose reputation, such as it was, had gone before her. She seemed ideally unqualified to shoulder the task of portraying the work and world of this outstanding artist.

Having known Checkland's journalism for some years in the Times and elsewhere, I concluded that she had little understanding of art and even less love for it. I thought she would eventually move on from reporting the art market to other assignments - the motoring or animal welfare columns perhaps. I was not the only one to be amazed when I heard she was devoting her energies to Ben Nicholson, a rigorous pioneer of pure abstraction as well as a painter of `figurative' works of the utmost sensibility. The disdain Checkland showed in her reporting of contemporary art did not suggest she would be the most sympathetic writer about an artist who, for many years, was at the despised frontier of modernism in Britain. And she seemed unacquainted with either precision or subtlety, both hallmarks of Nicholson's thought and style.

Once I had begun to read, this prejudicial distaste was confirmed. While I do not think it is a bad book, it has to be said that author and subject seem spectacularly illmatched. The first flashing signals indicating Checkland's unsuitability occur in her account of Ben's father, Sir William Nicholson. She misses the inescapable point that, pent maitre though he may be, he is one of the great still-life painters; categorising him as a society portraitist (a small piece in the jigsaw of his achievement) is wholly misplaced. Innocent surprise, technical virtuosity and a tonal command that can be miraculous mark his still lifes and landscapes, put down on canvas as though in one breath. Checkland details the long antagonism - personal and aesthetic - between father and son but fails to analyse their unmistakable kinship as artists. Writing of Ben's Edwardian childhood in his parents' world - one of slippers and spats, of upper Bohemia and rented country houses, of Max Beerbohm and Marie Tempest - Checkland continually gives herself away in unevocative prose and smudged art history. …

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