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1927 (apples and pears),

To an extent Apples and Pears represents the culmination of Ben Nicholson’s still-lifes of the mid-1920s. While it shares with the earlier ‘goblet paintings’ the floating forms anchored by rhythmic pencil lines, light tonality and strong formal simplification, its pictorial space is rather unusual in having a high viewpoint with a consequently strong orthogonal for the edge of the table. Nicholson filled the canvas with the tabletop, raising it to the picture plane in a device associated compositionally, if not stylistically, with Cubism.

Looking at the handling of the medium and substantial unpainted areas, parallels may also be drawn with the late watercolours of Paul Cézanne, whom Nicholson greatly admired. The move to canvas from the board of the goblets made a more delicate handling necessary. As a result the white ground seems hardly to have been painted over in places. The choice of pastel colours, moreover, shows Ben’s response to his wife Winifred’s subtle sense of colour. Despite the different subject matter, the chromatic range is comparable with her contemporary Roman Road (Landscape with Two Houses).

The prominent position of this work in the Kettle’s Yard house attests to its importance to Jim Ede. He acknowledged this implicitly in A Way of Life, where he recalled comparing it, at first sight, to the still-life on the window sill in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: “Van Eyck is interested in his fruit’s roundness, in the subtlety of light about it, in its weight and poise; it becomes an excuse for a further excursion into the beauty of such things. In the Ben Nicholson is found again, after many years, this light still folding itself around the fruit, still separating one from the other.”

This comparison partially obscures the simplicity of Nicholson’s habitual choice of still-life objects, especially the ordinary tableware of the goblet paintings. Fruit may be seen in this way, but it also has a long symbolic history in still-life painting, its perishability telling of mortality. This was not a concern confined to Old Masters and academic painters, as it persisted in the work of Pablo Picasso and André Derain, which Nicholson admired. In Apples and Pears the very delicacy of the hue and handling suggests this transience. Perhaps this too lingered behind Ede’s observation that the title of this work “would more properly be ‘Portrait of the Artist at the age of 33’.”

Provenance: purchased from the artist by H.S. Ede, 1928

Painting [BN 3]


Oil and graphite on canvas

438 x 678 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.