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1933 (musical instruments),

Ben Nicholson painted Musical Instruments at the time when, following his early experiments with Cubism, he was beginning to explore new and more radical ways of challenging pictorial illusionism; a year later he made his first reliefs. The painting (like the contemporary Black Guitar, also at Kettle’s Yard) shows Nicholson’s growing interest in creating images that exist beyond the two-dimensionality traditionally associated with painting, but not quite yet within the realm of sculpture. Significantly, this shift coincided with the separation from his wife Winifred, a painter, and the beginning of his relationship with Barbara Hepworth, a sculptor.

The technique of Musical Instruments is in itself remarkable. The painted surface lies on what appears to be a rough gesso ground laid on canvas. It is incised with long cursive strokes that define the outlines of the violin and the guitar, as well as apparently unrelated curved lines, which contribute to suggest the musical vibration of the instruments. The incisions are accompanied by a skilful use of colour creating the effect of shifting transparent planes. The canvas has been backed with board, possibly to sustain the deeply incised lines. This is a revealing choice, as it shows Nicholson’s shift towards the use of board as a support. It would soon become a key feature of the reliefs and indicates his increasing concern with the three-dimensional. Similarly, the choice of rather rough gesso priming demonstrates the artist’s interest in the texture and tactile properties of the painted surface.

Investigation of one of Nicholson’s earliest works at Kettle’s Yard, Bertha no.2, shows that in 1924 the artist was already using scraping techniques, though not to the same extent as here. The new emphasis on these in the early 1930s coincided with a renewed interest in Parisian Cubism, in particular in the theme of the still life with guitars or violins. Whereas in the 1920s Nicholson had looked to Pablo Picasso and André Derain, now he was increasingly impressed by the example of Georges Braque. Already in 1928, Jim Ede had been tempted to compare their art, and two years later, he urged his friend to visit Braque in Paris. Nicholson must have been aware of the Frenchman’s latest work, which was published in Cahiers d’Art and exhibited ever more frequently in London. The use of finely scratched lines on a densely worked black surface and the subject of Musical Instruments indeed seem to respond directly to it. It is also worth noting that the free-flowing, long incisions suggest an influence deriving from the ‘automatic’ methods developed by the Surrealists.

It is not known when Ede acquired Musical Instruments. As Jeremy Lewison has pointed out, its inscribed date of ‘1933’ suggests that work continued on it after it was first shown at Tooth’s Gallery in December 1932.

Provenance: acquired from the artist by H.S. Ede, date unknown

Painting [BN 15]


Oil on canvas

1030 x 905 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.