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1934 (relief),

1934 (relief) is quite roughly worked in thick card. It shows Ben Nicholson beginning to explore the combination of physical layers with the abstract language of biomorphic circles and grids exemplified by the Painted Box of the previous year (also at Kettle’s Yard). That the work is both shallow and painted is indicative of its early date in the artist’s research into the relief format, possibly from January or February 1934. The traces of cuts on either side of the lowest circle confirm that the card was treated with a knife and the layers simply peeled off. This was a much simpler process than the planing away of the surface required for the white reliefs that Nicholson made later that year, and gives the piece a collage-like feeling, recalling the work of Arp and his wife Sophie. A number of similar pieces survive. One of the closest in conception is 1934 (painted relief) (private collection) for which this may have been a preliminary exercise. The piece indeed appears to have been made quickly, and remains of modest quality.

1934 (relief) uses circles and squares drawn by eye rather than geometrically. Balance needed to be achieved both in two dimensions and in the added depth. The relief was cut from a single piece of card, the face of which was painted grey and white before being rubbed-down. The bottom third was cut away, and so was the rectangle in the top left corner. In what remained, Nicholson cut three circles: one in the full thickness, large and shallow, and two smaller and deeper ones. The circle in the top corner appears to have been cut all the way through the card, before it was fixed to the backing board. The relative depth and size of the holes is balanced by the introduction of white paint for the upper two, set against the lower circle which was worked with pencil to achieve a steely black.

This is Nicholson’s only pre-war relief in the Kettle’s Yard collection, which is symptomatic of Jim Ede’s difficulty with his friend’s move into uncompromising abstraction, even though others close to him – such as Helen Sutherland and Margaret Gardiner – bought the artist’s white reliefs. It may, however, also reflect more prosaic concerns, such as the expenditure on the villa that Jim was building in Tangier at the time. Indeed, Ede’s response may perhaps be seen in his own design for the house, which would be named, somewhat paradoxically given its Corbusian appearance, ‘White Stone’.

Provenance: acquired from the artist by H.S. Ede, August 1934 (?)

Painting [BN 8]


Oil, graphite and incised coloured card

80 x 80 mm

About the artist

Ben Nicholson was the son of the painter William Nicholson. After marrying Winifred Roberts, during the 1920s he travelled widely and lived with her between Cumberland, London, Paris and Switzerland. Following a period experimenting with a post-Cézanne manner, Nicholson developed a consciously 'primitive' landscape style in 1927, further encouraged by his encounter with the art of Alfred Wallis. Between 1931 and 1939 he lived in London in close proximity to many artists and critics such as Moore, Piper, Martin, Ede and Herbert Read. He met Arp, Brancusi, and later Mondrian, Gabo and Jean Hélion. The influence of these artists led him to develop a highly abstract style of the late 1930s, for which he is most famous. In 1931 he met Barbara Hepworth, who would become his second wife. He returned to St. Ives during the war with Hepworth, Gabo and Stokes and established an international reputation in the 1950s and 60s. After the war he lived at various times in London, Cambridge and Switzerland and married a third time to Felicitas Vogler.