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1924 (bertha no. 2),

The title of the painting, inscribed by Nicholson on the back, suggests that it is a portrait rather than a generalised head. The sitter, however, has not been identified. Nicholson’s handling of the paint is here simple and swift. An off-white ground, still visible in places, forms the base for the urgent preliminary drawing. In both scale and execution, the artist seems to be making deliberate references to Renaissance frescoes. The head is larger than life and the bare shoulders would establish a massive body if projected beyond the canvas. Even the isolation of this detail recalls the way in which fragments of fresco were removed and framed. This is consistent with the growing appreciation amongst London art circles for the so-called Italian ‘primitives’. In this work their simple style and palette came to be combined with a solidity and faceting of the figure derived from Cubism.

Painting [BN 1]


Oil and graphite on canvas

610 x 560 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.