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Cyclamen and Primula, 1923 (circa)

Cyclamen and Primula was painted by Winifred Nicholson in Switzerland. In 1921 she and her husband Ben bought the Villa Capriccio, near Castagnola in the Ticino. Two years later they purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse in Cumberland which remained Winifred’s home for the rest of her life. Between 1921 and 1924 the Nicholsons spent the winters in Switzerland and the summers at Bankshead, painting still lifes and the local views.

This painting is one of the most important in a group of works made in the early 1920s. About half a dozen were completed by the beginning of April 1923, when in a letter the artist described them as “sunlight in white paper”. The series explores the theme of flowers wrapped in paper on a window-ledge and seen against the Alpine landscape. Nicholson wrote about it: “Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley – mughetti – in a tissue paper wrapper – this I stood on the window sill – behind was the azure blue, Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there – and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe. That picture painted itself, and after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill, in cyclamen, primula or cineraria – sunlight on leaves, and sunlight shining transparent through lens and through the mystery of tissue paper … I have often wished for another painting spell like that, but never had one.”

Academic training at the time tended to subordinate colour to line and drawing, but her travels (in particular a visit to India in 1919) had made Nicholson discover new aspects of tonality and light. This painting provides an already mature essay in their handling: the strong visual unity of the flowers in the foreground and the landscape in the background is achieved by an attentive use of colour as strong compositional element to lead the eye from the flowers to wrapping and then to the mountains.

Critics dealing with Winifred Nicholson’s work consistently interpreted it in terms of a conjunction of woman and nature. In 1928 Jim Ede himself began a passage on the painter by declaring: “Winifred Nicholson is essentially a woman painter and she stands, I think, foremost amongst those of to-day. She does not endeavour to hide her sex in her work – she is proud of it, and brings to paintings a woman’s attitude.” Prior to publication, he sent the text to the artist. Amongst her replies was “an account of what I consider the Feminine”, an acute and lengthy refutation of the way in which men assumed certain positions and took women for granted, especially in the creative sphere. Her thesis was essentially spiritual, beginning with an assertion of a masculine/feminine polarity: “A human life is a hole with 2 opposite poles in it, as night and day, winter and summer, black and white. Masculine is one half. Feminine the other – each equally potent, living beautiful, purposeful. Each totally distinct. Each only reaching its full flowering point in fusion with the other, by marriage, by friendship, by some momentary sparky contact of love … There has always been some element of fusion, however slight to bring life. The more fusion the more life.”

Ede did not buy Cyclamen and Primula during the period of his first friendship with the Nicholsons. Instead, he acquired it in the late 1950s. In A Way of Life he recalled: “I had always wanted this particular painting which I think must have been in an early exhibition, or seen from a photograph; and then years later a Cambridge dealer had recognised it, so dirty as to be hardly visible, so he got it ‘for nothing’, cleaned it a little, and let me have it for what I could manage. Even then it needed a good scrubbing, and now is this delight of sunlit shadows and insubstantial substance.”

Provenance: purchased by H.S. Ede from an unidentified Cambridge dealer, late 1950s

Painting [WN 4]


Oil on board

500 x 550 mm

About the artist

Nicholson was born Winifred Roberts in Oxford. She studied in London and Paris before marrying Ben Nicholson in 1920. She exhibited with her husband in the 1920s and was a member of the Seven & Five Society between 1925 and 1935. In 1937 she contributed to 'Circle' under the name of Dacre. After the war she settled in Cumbria. For further information visit: