Tucked away in South East London, Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s first purpose-built art gallery, designed by the architect Sir John Soane. Opening to the public in 1817, the gallery houses an esteemed and important permanent collection, made up largely of works by 17th and 18th century European Old Masters, including Rembrandt, Poussin and Van Dyck. In recent years, it has also run a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions, which include ‘Modern British’ among its themes. The gallery’s latest show, ‘Art and Life’, which closed towards the end of September, belonged to this strand; it focused on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, whose work can be seen on permanent display in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The exhibition covered roughly a decade (1920-31) of these artists’ careers, a period which coincided also with their relatively short-lived marriage. The couple were part of a British avant-garde scene working in the first half of the 20th century. The final rooms of the exhibition showed the work of the Nicholsons’ painter-friends Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, which revealed a similar gaucheness of style. While none of these artists are particularly well-known now (having been neglected in the complexities of the European modernist scene), they were not unsuccessful during their lifetime. But it was the Nicholsons’ artistic partnership, thriving as it did on a shared love of the British countryside and a similar artistic sensibility, which made the exhibition so insightful.
Richard Dorment described this exhibition as ‘an exercise in tedium’, pointing out the drab use of colours in the landscape paintings and the pseudo-naivety of the draughtsmanship (The Telegraph, 2nd June 2014). It is true that the inclusion of the occasional ungainly, gawky horse – added to the landscape as if it were a piece of fuzzy-felt – suggests a self-consciously naive approach, as seen in Walton Wood Cottage no. 1 (1928). But the overriding effect is one of charming, and bold, unfussiness rather than glaring ineptitude. Dorment seems insensitive to the simple fact that the predominance of sombre greens and browns in the Nicholson’s Cornish and Cumberland panoramas is the result of a sincere painterly response to a particular atmosphere. Winifred’s Cumberland landscape scene Northrigg Hill (1926) is a case in point: hung alongside a version of the scene painted by the couple’s friend Christopher Wood, it has a convincing vigour to it which Wood’s painting lacks. It is as if she has filtered her strongest sensations and visual memories of the place into one atmospheric and evocative scene, sacrificing mere imitation for immediate sensation. The bold contours of the hedgerows, zigzagging across the undulating land lead the eye into the misty blue distance, which blends almost seamlessly into the folds of cloud of a typically overcast English sky.
A different kind of sensual immediacy – of equal potency but greater delicacy – is apparent in Winifred’s still life paintings of flowers on windowsills. In these paintings, her sensitive use of colour gives the very real impression of petals glowing translucently in sunlight. The painter described the coloristic sensitivity which governed her approach to the painting Anemones (1924): “I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity”. Many of Winifred’s canvases are suffused with daubs of varying shades of pink; one shade in particular she recommended to her husband in 1925: ‘Have you tried Jaune capucine Foncé, it’s rather a good pale pink [sic].’ That same year, the exact colour appears in Ben’s Cubist-inspired still-life, Jamaïque.
Besides her brief excursion into pure abstraction during the 1930s – as represented in this exhibition by White and Black Eclipse (1936) – Winifred was to remain attached to domestic still-life as her primary subject matter throughout the rest of her career. As a result it is perhaps unsurprising that she has been consigned to art historical obscurity. Despite the fact that Ben Nicholson’s serious pursuit of geometric abstraction did not begin until beyond the prescribed scope of the exhibition in the mid-1930s, the final room featured several of these austere works. Perhaps this curatorial decision was intended as a reminder of what he is best known for today, or, as Dorment implies, of his relevance to Modernism. One cannot help drawing comparisons between his rather sudden move into abstraction and the broader formal experiments among the avant-garde artists on the continent. But, contextualising these later works within an art historical modernist ‘narrative’ serves only to denigrate the earlier works to which this exhibition is dedicated. They are in themselves interesting, exploratory attempts to communicate genuine responses to their favourite parts of the British countryside.