fig. 2
Paul Laib

The National Gallery of Victoria has recently added to its collection a painting that encapsulates one of the most complex, dynamic and contested moments in the history of modern British art. Painted by Ben Nicholson, the heroic figure of the abstract movement in England, the composition of 1938 (fig. 1) is disquietingly simple. Geometric zones of unmodulated hues, red and yellow, blacks, white and greys delineated by lightly ruled pencil lock into a perfect, seemingly static, matrix. Two expansive circles to the right relieve the work’s rectangular severity without disrupting it: a floating white disc at the top, anchored by a crimson circle offset below.

Despite its ‘landscape’ format, 1938 bears no conceivable relation to natural topography. Indeed there is little in this picture to link it to the landscape genre with which English national identity remained so closely bound in the aftermath of the First World War. Named simply for the year of its making, 1938 refuses both the motifs and perspective of naturalism. It denies narrative. It withholds, even, the comfort of a descriptive title to rescue it from generic anonymity. Alien it may seem, yet 1938 is an unmistakeable tour de force, its design equally legible from up close and far away. Even if the viewer knows nothing of its origins, the composition is unusually clear, certain and resolved, and it has an impact that far exceeds its modest dimensions. It could be said, in fact, to possess many of the iconic qualities of a national flag. One question that in 1938 might well have been asked is, whose national flag?

The making of a renegade

In a carefully posed portrait by Paul Laib from c.1933 (fig. 2), Nicholson presents as an unsmiling figure, wearing black with a beret. Turning athletically to challenge the viewer, he does not seem English, but rather, conveys the air of a revolutionary, artist or intellectual of the Parisian Left Bank. If, then, it could be said that 1938 seems deliberately provocative in its enigmatic assertiveness, so too does its maker.

Coming from an artistic background (the son of the successful Edwardian painter William Nicholson) and steeped in an appreciation of the seen object, Nicholson always struggled to resist his father’s seductive example as a supreme still-life painter. Nicholson’s discovery of Christian Science in 1918 and Cubism soon after, gave him the means to reach an alternative world beyond appearances. He quickly outgrew any association he joined, starting with the Seven and Five Society, an idiosyncratic group of artists mostly inspired by nature. Aware of theory, yet scornful of dependence on it, throughout the 1930s Nicholson both joined and formed artistic groups intending to convert them to his own intuitively defined version of abstraction, and to provoke them out of what the critic Herbert Read called the ‘slumbering provincialism’ of British art.1 Herbert Read, Art in Britain 1930–40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1965, p. 5.

A key ally in this was a fellow artist (later to be his second wife), the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who he met in 1931. Nicholson joined her at the colony of artists and art writers living in the leafy lanes of Hampstead, North London, a community that included the already prominent sculptor Henry Moore. The heart of this community was a complex of purpose-built studios at The Mall. Built in 1873 along a lane off Parkhill Road, they were unheated and barely six metres square, with tiny doors and large east windows facing onto a garden. The Frenchman Jean Hélion described the enclave as an ‘English bateau-lavoir where Ben and many other young enthusiasts were working out a new [abstract] art of restraint and subtlety’.2 Jean Hélion, quoted in Maurice de Sausmarez, Ben Nicholson: A Studio International Special, Studio International, London, p. 13.

The eminent art critic Herbert Read, who joined them in 1933, later called the community a ‘nest of gentle artists’,3 Read, ‘A nest of gentle artists’, Apollo, vol. 77, no. 7, Sept. 1962, pp. 565–9. a perception confirmed by another neighbour, H. S. (Jim) Ede, then assistant keeper at the Tate Gallery: ‘All these artists were familiars, constantly coming in and out, and what is more, bringing their work, hot from its making, to show or give’.4 Harold Stanley (Jim) Ede, A Way of Life, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 1984, p. 57. The equilibrium changed with Nicholson’s arrival. While still primarily Cubist in 1931, his paintings by 1933 had suddenly reduced to hand-drawn circles and squares, painted and sometimes carved, reflecting his and Hepworth’s new affiliation with the strict new Parisian abstract group, Abstraction-Création. This quantum leap announced to fellow artists that Nicholson had no further use for the figurative image, far less for Surrealism, which he felt was only serving to extend the life of figuration. The choice seemed clear: join Nicholson or else prove that Surrealism was not obsolete but was, rather, the more completely human (and thus fitter) destiny for modern art. Among the followers Nicholson attracted were the painter John Piper, his neighbour Cecil Stephenson and a ‘pupil’, Arthur Jackson (Hepworth’s cousin).

Until this time, the self-appointed stabilising figure of the community at Hampstead had been the older Surrealist artist Paul Nash, a veteran of the First World War and an authoritative writer, but given to depression and chronic illness. In 1932 Nash sought to cement over the fissures emerging among this gifted cluster of artists and to boost its fortunes with a new group, Unit One. Its optimistic aim was to advance the cause of modern art through a united exploration of the ‘truly contemporary spirit’ in art.5 For a recent treatment of this group’s activities, see Ted Gott, Laurie Benson & Sophie Matthiesson, Modern Britain 1900–1960, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, pp. 197–206. Aware of the domineering mission of Ben and ‘Ben’s boys’ (as he called them), Nash excluded Nicholson until the membership was established.6 ‘I feel we represent the most stable & least biased members of the rather difficult collection of people who are likely to constitute a group … I heard from Ben & I shall write to him more guardedly until Barbara is decided upon! … Ben is a good fellow but I do not regard his judgement as entirely sound – & I believe you agree on this’. Paul Nash to Henry Moore, 17 Jan. 1933, quoted in James King, The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1990, p. 130. Nash’s concerns were shared by Herbert Read, a staunch supporter of Nicholson and then-editor of the Burlington Magazine. Like Nash, Read upheld a vision of diversity in the arts, based on a British paradigm of liberal democracy. Although they eventually included Nicholson in Unit One, Read, who would write the foreword for the group’s 1934 exhibition catalogue, also entertained the thought of excluding him in the name of collective harmony.7 ‘His confusion would confuse the public, and Ben being so vital and energetic, would inevitably lead to the creation of a new group, to division & back biting when unity is so necessary and desirable’. Read to Paul Nash, 23 Nov. 1934, quoted in Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery Publications, 1993, p. 48. ‘I tried’, as Read later wrote, ‘to argue, and I still believe, that such dialectical oppositions are good for the progress of art’.8 Read, ‘A nest of gentle artists’, p. 53.

Clearly, by 1932 Nicholson’s impatient sense of purpose had made itself felt. His goal, although it was more intuited then articulated, was to make an English contribution to the new ‘non-objective art’ being forged on the Continent. Little known in England, the progress of this new art form was mainly charted in non-English avant-garde publications, with a notable exception being a short-lived English magazine, Ray-Art Miscellany, published by Seven and Five member Sydney Hunt. Nicholson, on the other hand, during his visits to Paris (where his first wife Winifred lived), gained first-hand knowledge of abstract art and the international figures making it. Nicholson’s unwillingness to wait for critics – even well-disposed ones like Read – to catch up with or disseminate his views impeded at times his public reception.9 J Read, for example, accurately predicted that the lack of a critical vocabulary would mar the reception of Nicholson’s white reliefs (see Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson: The Years of Experiment 1919–39, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, 1983, p. 33). His aversion also to holding back in the interests of fellow artists whose vision did not precisely match his own complicated the support he received among his peers.

Nash and Read became the first in a succession of British avant-garde figures who resorted to fostering surrealisms in the name of balance.10 John and Myfanwy Piper also began to do so from 1936 onwards (see Joanna Gardner-Huggett, ‘Myfanwy Evans: “Axis” and a voice for the British avant-garde’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, Autumn 2000 – Winter 2001, pp. 22–6, esp. p. 24). See also Brian Foss, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939–1945, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, p. 186. For Moore’s concerns about ‘the purely constructivist abstract people’ gaining too much ground, see King, p.165. Later on when conservative critics singled out Nicholson’s abstraction as hostile, foreign and doctrinaire, Surrealism, despite its irrational tendencies, was conversely praised for its supposed humanity and individualistic grounding in emotion. As a result of this (at times artificial) promotion of Surrealism in the name of creating a ‘dialectical’ balance, the assimilation and production in Britain of Surrealist art (and its later offshoot Neo-Romanticism) was accelerated; its progress, in a sense, pegged to the extraordinary pace at which Nicholson, almost single-handedly, was developing geometric abstraction.

For all its sophisticated interest in artistic developments on the Continent, Unit One stayed very much a British affair. It did not attempt to harness the talent of the foreign artists and intellectuals who, since 1933, had started to arrive in London in flight from Nazism. This does not seem to reflect any nationalist chauvinism on Nash’s part (despite Britain’s prevalence in the interwar period under Stanley Baldwin), but rather, reflects the difficult balance that Nash was already attempting to maintain between the group’s eleven existing members.11 They comprised the architects Wells Coates and Colin Lucas, painters John Armstrong, Edward Burra, John Bigge, Tristram Hillier, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth, and sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. As Read explained, ‘anything much larger would have been unworkable’.12 Read, ‘Unit One’, Architect Review, 6 Oct. 1933, reprinted in Unit One: Spirit of the 30s, Mayor Gallery, London, 1984, p. 49.

Nicholson had become a frequent visitor to France during the 1930s and joined a number of groups there. Among the figures he met were Brancusi, Braque, Giacometti, Lipchitz, Man Ray, Picasso and Zadkine; he also made links with leading Paris dealers and publishers including Kahnweiler, Pierre Loëb, Léonce Rosenberg, and Christian Zervos, editor and publisher of Cahiers d’art. In 1933 he and Hepworth were willingly recruited into Abstraction-Création, an exclusive non-figurative group formed by Jean Hélion after the demise of its predecessor, Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square). Through Hélion they were introduced to the Arps, Calder, Kandinsky, Miró and Antoine Pevsner and, most critically, the De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian. Nicholson’s revelatory encounter with space and whiteness in Mondrian’s light-filled studio in April 1934 is now a matter of record. It apparently confirmed for him the value of a series of white paintings and carved reliefs that he had recently commenced in an attempt to radically distil form.13 ‘Have had a most lovely painting day. My last ptgs are completely white’ (Ben Nicholson to Winifred Nicholson, 2 Feb. 1934, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 44). The first reliefs slightly pre-date this trip, as Nicholson showed examples at the Seven and Five Society’s exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in Mar. 1934, prompting David Gascoyne to describe Nicholson as ‘performing the death rites of painting’ (David Gascoyne, Art, New English Weekly, vol. 5, no. 3, 3 May 1934). It may further have inspired his adoption of compass and ruler for plotting shapes in the quest for a transcendent precision, which finds its ultimate expression in Nicholson’s abstract works of mid 1937 to 1939.

Through these interactions Nicholson quickly became the main conduit for ideas and news between his colleagues on either side of the Channel. In true revolutionary style, he proclaimed himself ‘a kind of Paris–London liaison’, reporting back to ‘our small Belsize Pk group’.14 Nicholson, quoted in Sarah Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, John Murray, London, 2000, p. 119. It was due in part to Nicholson’s liaising, and in part to the growing international influence of Herbert Read’s writings, that leading foreign figures came to know of Hampstead and to choose London over America as a destination. The Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius was an early arrival, followed by his colleague Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy, the sculptor Naum Gabo and others. As the balance of creativity started tilting from Paris towards London, Nicholson seized the opportunity to recruit new arrivals to his own projects. He also sought to accommodate them in their new artistic world, as Hélion had done for him in Paris.

Elected head of the formerly landscape-oriented Seven and Five Society, and backed by fellow abstractionists, by 1934 Nicholson had eliminated its figurative artists and replaced them with non-figurative ones. Changing its name to the more Constructivist-sounding 7 & 5 Abstract Group, he also invited foreign colleagues to join.15 In a letter to Conrad Aiken, 31 Jan. 1935, Paul Nash wrote that Nicholson was planning an international exhibition for the next 7 & 5 exhibition: ‘all the most important foreign abstract artists will be represented by their latest work. This should be rather a swell show and very stimulating to the young idea in London’ (quoted in Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900–1939, Allen Lane, London, 1981, p. 273, n. 28). Symbolically at least, the gesture must have appeared to some ousted members of this once archetypically English group as a callous act of invasion.

The arrival of triplets for Hepworth and Nicholson in October 1934 exacerbated the couple’s poverty but it did not impede their work, which they needed more than ever to sell. It was shortly after this event that Nicholson reported to Ede that he had met the director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, and that ‘He & Mrs between them bought a white relief & a ptg’.16 Nicholson to Jim Ede, Dec. 1934, quoted in Checkland, pp. 149, n. 36. In September 1935 Nicholson held his first one-man show of all-white reliefs at the gallery of his dealers, Reid & Lefevre, at King Street, St James. It has recently been referred to as ‘the most coherent one-man modernist exhibition by an English artist before the Second World War’,17 King, p. 153. but at the time it was described by the Daily Mail as ‘London’s strangest exhibition’.18 Quoted in Checkland, p. 148. Although Herbert Read valiantly pointed out the reliefs’ resonant spirituality, viewed en masse it was shockingly apparent that they represented a comprehensive break with all that had gone before in English art.19 See Read, ‘Ben Nicholson and the future of abstract painting’, The Listener, 9 Oct. 1935, pp. 604–5. Despite owning an example himself, Clark, as head of the art establishment, felt compelled to speak up for naturalism, narrative and expressivity. In the Listener Clark denounced the white series for its ‘fatal defect of purity’ and exposure of ‘the poverty of human invention when forced to spin a web from its own guts’.20 Kenneth Clark, ‘The future of painting’, The Listener, 2 Oct. 1935, pp. 554–5.

Still recovering from the impact of the all-white exhibition, critics and the curious public were presented in the next month with the 7 & 5 Abstract Group’s final exhibition, again entirely abstract. Commentators recoiled at the campaign-like onslaught. With no means of understanding the ‘purely constructivist abstract people’, as Henry Moore called them, their work appeared like the product of a ‘foreign ideology [and] the epitome of continental audacity’.21 Virginia Button, Ben Nicholson, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p. 38.

It cannot be denied that Nicholson deliberately cultivated a militant persona in his engagement with the art world and surrounded himself with a platoon of followers. But aggressive posturings had been fairly standard for the self-styled avant-garde since the First World War starting with the combative rhetoric of the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis. In 1933 Nash and Read had advertised the Mayor Gallery as the ‘headquarters of Unit One’, while their architectural colleagues in an equivalent group called themselves MARS, a title which, as one member recalled, ‘nicely combined a sense of militancy with a vision of planetary exploration’.22 John Summerson, ‘The MARS group and the thirties’, in John Bold & Edward Chaney (eds), English Architecture Public and Private: Essays for Kerry Downes, Hambledon Press, London, 1993, p. 305. The full name was the Modern Architecture Research Group. Formed in the same year (1933) as Unit One, MARS was the English arm of the avant-garde Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. Although he was interested in world events and identified with Left politics, Nicholson contemplated but never went so far as joining the Communist party, unlike Henry Moore and Picasso.23 Nicholson was cautiously admiring of the fact that Moore and Picasso had both joined the party (see Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1982, pp. 50–1).

By 1936 the need for Nicholson to project a formidable image of himself and the movement he represented had in fact become strategically vital. A level of tactical shrewdness had also become necessary in his dealings with ostensible allies such as John Piper. A former follower and now occasional critic of Nicholson, in May 1936 Piper had taken issue with Nicholson about his tendency to ‘force’ artistic movements. ‘You can’t encourage history while it’s going on’, Piper told him, ‘you can only recognize it when it becomes history’.24 Checkland, p. 168. But Piper’s observation was somewhat disingenuous as he, like Clark, was simultaneously engaged in steering Surrealism and not Constructivism into the history books.

The International Surrealist Exhibition took place in London that summer, organised by Herbert Read and others. It attracted huge attention, in no small part due to stunts, which included Salvador Dalí lecturing in a diving suit. It upstaged completely a significant travelling exhibition of international abstract art, Abstract and Concrete, mounted in the preceding months by Nicholson’s friend Nicolete Gray.25 Abstract and Concrete ran between February and June 1936 in Oxford, Liverpool, Cambridge and, finally, London (Lefevre Gallery) and included works by Hepworth, Nicholson, Moore, John Piper and many leading European artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Miró, Mondrian, Gabo, Calder, and Giacometti. Nicholson may have viewed the sideshow into which Surrealism had degenerated as a chance to garner respect for abstraction as a dignified alternative for modern art. Public credibility was particularly important at this juncture as he and Read were seriously contemplating establishing a Museum of Living Art devoted to non-figurative art.26 Conversations had begun in 1935 between Nicholson, Nicolete Gray, J. L. Martin and Herbert Read (see King, p. 178). Paul Laib’s portrait of Nicholson, dated c.1933, suggests that Nicholson was already cultivating many of the qualities that might be expected of a leader of the new abstract art movement: courage, control, simplicity, seriousness and a reserved sophistication.27 On the derisive comments occasioned in 1934 by Nicholson’s and Hepworth’s wearing of berets, see Checkland, p. 133.

Marshalling a theoretical alternative of gravitas and breadth to the Surrealist exhibition was slower. In 1936 Nicholson, the architect J. L. Martin and the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo conceived an International Constructivist manifesto, which aimed to define and give coherence to the spectrum of Constructivism as it was being practised across disciplines and nationalities. Entitled Circle: An International Survey of Constructivist Art, it represented in key respects a dialectical opposite to André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1925, in which Surrealism had been defined as ‘dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’.28 André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism [1924], in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900–1990, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p. 438. Circle was published in July 1937 to coincide with an eponymous exhibition, and its typographically severe cover design featured a list of sixty-eight ‘signatories’: painters, sculptors, architects and writers.29 See John Leslie Martin, Nicholson & Naum Gabo (eds), Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, Faber & Faber, London, 1937. Over a thousand copies were sold in Britain and the United States in the first year. On the production of Circle, see Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, pp. 121–2. Inside, essays and illustrations by contributors demonstrated the expressive powers of line, colour and shape, independent of any association with the seen world. Whereas the architects, designers and town planners showed how Constructivism’s universal and rational principles could be applied for utopian ends, Gabo spoke for Nicholson and himself in maintaining that creative art, while similarly controlled, was free of such utilitarian obligations.

Against a background of rising fascism and communism in Europe, critics viewed this sudden solidarity among Constructivists with alarm. Commentators from Left and Right attacked their purist, ‘ivory tower’ agenda, Bolshevik-style manifesto and ‘rigid’, ‘inhuman’ and ‘conformist’ rules, and likened their art to an aesthetic equivalent of the Nuremberg and Moscow rallies.30 Checkland, p. 167. In particular, leftists, shaken by Stalin’s purging of his own intellectuals in the 1936–38 Moscow Trials, viewed the exclusionary zeal of the Constructivists with apprehension. Buckling under the strain of supporting both Surrealists and Constructivists amid this volatile political climate, Herbert Read retreated from the North London scene. ‘Guns’, he said, ‘were being fired at him from every side’.31 Read, quoted in Checkland, p. 169. Undeterred, Nicholson continued working on his white abstract reliefs while editing Circle. Then, in mid 1937, with Circle completed, Nicholson embarked upon a series of paintings in which the unmodulated primary colours of De Stijl and the architectural severity of the Bauhaus influence merge. It is out of this chaotic and distracting context of artistic and global contestations that the poised and magnificently static painting, 1938, emerged.

Mondrian

As the situation in Paris deteriorated, Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, evacuated her children to England and, in late September 1938, with the urging of Nicholson and Hepworth, persuaded Piet Mondrian to accompany her to safety. Nicholson found Mondrian accommodation and studio space on the first floor of 60 Parkhill Road, Hampstead, where he retained a studio in the garden (fig. 3). For the next eleven months the two artists worked intensively in their austere adjacent studios. Hepworth later recalled how in that period ‘Piet Mondrian became a pillar of strength’ to Nicholson and herself.32 Barbara Hepworth, ‘Mondrian in London’, Studio International, vol. 172, no. 884, Dec. 1966, p. 288.

The impact of Mondrian’s London visit upon Nicholson’s work at this time has often been discussed. The actual process of the change it effected upon Nicholson’s work has not. New scientific analysis of 1938 suggests that the painting may have been partially, if not fully, undertaken during Mondrian’s time in Hampstead. What is most immediately apparent is Nicholson’s decision to introduce a strong element of pure yellow. This was a colour that Winifred, as Nicholson was fully aware, considered to be Mondrian’s own discovery.33 Nicholson held Winifred’s views on colour in the highest regard. Winifred pointed out to Mondrian that ‘“You are the first person who has ever painted Yellow … pure lemon yellow like the sun”. He denied it, but next time I saw him, he took up the remark. “I have thought about it” he said, “and it is so, but it is merely because Cadmium yellow pigment has been invented”’ (Winifred Nicholson, ‘Mondrian in London’, Studio International, vol. 172, no. 884, Dec. 1966, p. 286). While its use does not in itself prove that Nicholson painted 1938 after September of that year, infrared reflectography now reveals that this yellow was initially used to form vertical and horizontal bars of different widths to divide the canvas both horizontally and vertically, with the horizontal yellow line joining the yellow vertical to the left and co-terminating with the right edge of the lower white rectangle. The result was a grid-like structure, unusual in Nicholson’s oeuvre (fig. 4).34 During the 1930s Nicholson is known to have used the commercial primer Coverine as a quick-drying substitute for gesso and the French white house paint Ripolin as a top coat on white reliefs. In 1938 the ground layer has been freely applied in sweeping circular strokes, the wide brush marks visible in the areas around the two circles.

It seems possible that this structural innovation may correspond to a tentative breakthrough in Mondrian’s own work that took place in the London studio in late 1938 in which Mondrian revisited an isolated work from 1933 entitled Lozenge composition with four yellow lines. Around October it appears that Mondrian resurrected his earlier idea of employing yellow lines of varying thickness. From late 1938 onwards Mondrian began to incorporate them into his grid paintings to the eventual exclusion of the dark lines for which he was formerly known. This experimental shift, which is widely believed to have taken place after Mondrian’s transferral to New York, is recorded in drawings and a painting started in London. The latter, New York City, 3, is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid.35 Mondrian continued to work on New York City, New York 3 after he relocated to New York in 1940. These transitional works later become the foundation of his last major paintings before his death, the famous New York series of 1941–42. Joosten states that New York City, New York 3 is ‘possibly one of the two greater pictures mentioned in Mondrian’s letter of 10 December 1938 to Harry Holtzman’ (Joop M. Joosten, Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1998, p. 398).

Another compositional element in Nicholson’s painting that may have been affected was his use of the circle, a key feature in his oeuvre that above all maintained his independence from Mondrian. Nicholson’s identity had became so inseparable from this motif that he had, earlier in the year, placed a small red disc beside his signature in the poster he designed for the Shell Oil Company.36 1938 (You can be sure of Shell), poster for Shell Mex and BP Ltd, V&A Museum, reproduced in Lynton, p. 168. Nicholson’s ideas about how different circles functioned in his painting were also well developed, even before 1941, when he described how, when two squares are placed in proximity to a pencilled circle, ‘you can create a most exciting tension between these forces and, if at any time, this tension becomes too exciting, you can easily, by the smallest mark made by a compass in its centre, transfix the circle like any butterfly!’37 See Nicholson, ‘Notes on abstract art’ [Oct. 1941], Horizon, London; revised version in Read, ‘Introduction’, Ben Nicholson, Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, Lund Humphries, London, 1948.

The same infrared photograph (fig. 4) now shows that a third circle exists beneath the pale grey paint layer in the upper left of the canvas. At its centre is a small compass hole (digitally highlighted in red). This in itself might not be particularly surprising, given Nicholson’s tendency not to make preliminary drawings. However, in this instance Nicholson’s decision to alter the position of his circles may have been a result of Mondrian’s advice, which the younger artist had formed a habit of soliciting. Mondrian, who was described in 1941 as ‘probably the only painter in the world who hasn’t drawn a curved line in 20 years’,38 Geoffrey T. Hellman, The Talk of the Town, ‘Lines and rectangles’, The New Yorker, 1 Mar. 1941, p. 7. nevertheless took an interest in how Nicholson used circles. He wrote in 1940, ‘I do like your photo of relief only I should like the big round a little otherwise placed: it goes to the left’.39 Piet Mondrian to Nicholson, 13 Sept. 1940, quoted in Sophie Bowness, ‘Mondrian in London: Letters to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 132, no. 1052, Nov. 1990, pp. 782–8.

The evident increased influence of Mondrian’s work upon Nicholson cannot simply be ascribed to Nicholson’s knowledge of his friend’s theoretical writings, despite the fact that Nicholson had recently edited Mondrian’s essay on Neo-Plasticism in Circle. It seems instead more likely to have come about through his close proximity to the older figure, which until now had been limited by the geographical distance between them. By late 1938 Nicholson had also come to own a painting by Mondrian, which he greatly prized.40 Mondrian initially placed Composition en rouge, bleu et blanc: II, 1937 (now in Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris), on consignment with Nicholson and later gave it to him (see Sophie Bowness, p. 785, n. 6). There seems no need to doubt Nicholson when he states: ‘I could not be bothered to read Mondrian’s theories. What I got from him – and it was a great deal – I got direct from his paintings’.41 Nicholson, quoted in Sausmarez, p. 7.

In March 1939 in the months following the publication of Circle, Reid & Lefevre held another one-man show of Nicholson’s work, rivalling that of the all-white reliefs exhibition they had staged four years earlier. It unveiled the results of the most rigorous phase yet in Nicholson’s career. In it were displayed forty-one works: nineteen chromatic paintings, sixteen white reliefs, two gouaches and four drawings. Although not previously noted in the painting’s exhibition history, 1938 was included in this exhibition, probably no. 8 in the catalogue.42 Sir Alan Bowness has deduced that the painting is most likely no. 8 in the catalogue, ‘from the evidence of the prices in relation to dimensions – 70 guineas according to Lefevre’s archive’ (email correspondence with the writer, 15 Sept. 2008). It is fascinating to see in an archival photograph of the show (fig. 5) how Nicholson’s paintings and white reliefs (which were almost equal in number) were hung alternately, as though to stress the fact that the white reliefs had not been an icy, monolithic end in themselves at the expense of colour – a criticism often voiced by the art press.

The overwhelming impression of grand unity created in the Lefevre Gallery showroom is assisted through the elegantly uniform presentation of the works in simple timber frames, without cluttering labels. Nicholson exercised great control over the presentation of his reliefs and paintings, and it has often been assumed, because of his comments on the subject, that he always made his own frames.43 ‘I have considered the frame which surrounds a work of mine as a vital part of its presentation. Therefore, I have always seen to the framing of my work myself … Frames should be made of natural wood with little graining and of a colour which is not too hot, nor too yellow, and which is not stained or varnished. The corners of the frame should not be mitred diagonally. The four sides should abutt [sic] each other, aligned so that the top side extends over the left side vertical and that the right-side vertical rises so as to extend over the side of the top lateral. Similarly, the left-side vertical is to extend across the end of the bottom lateral while the bottom lateral is to extend across the end of the right-side vertical.’ Ben Nicholson to Tate Gallery, 28 June 1979, quoted in Stephen Hackney, Rica Jones & Joyce Townsend (eds), Paint and Purpose: A Study of Technique in British Art, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1999, p. 162. In the 1930s, however, Nicholson was having his paintings and reliefs framed by a Mr Arthur Colley in Haverstock Hill, who worked to his instructions. His neighbours, the artist Cecil Stephenson and his wife, Sybil, also occasionally made his frames. Cecil, who was a trained engineer, had a well-equipped workshop in which he could machine mouldings to Nicholson’s specifications, while Sybil possibly finished them and fitted the works.44 In a diary entry of October 1932, Cecil Stephenson wrote that he was ‘making large track for pictures for Ben Nicholson’ (see Checkland, p. 107, n. 49). In February 1939 Sybil left Stephenson for E. L. T. Mesens, publisher of Nicholson’s catalogue for the Reid & Lefevre Gallery exhibition, Mar. 1939. On Sybil Stephenson, see Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 52, n. 33; Checkland, p.178.

Reid & Lefevre’s undertaking to stage an exhibition of such uncompromisingly abstract art shows a degree of boldness that no publicly funded gallery could have risked in 1939. To display so many works, named only for the year in which they were made, and to present them without labels, was to court criticism from uninitiated viewers. The ‘public’ towards whom the exhibition was directed was the London cognoscenti, a significant portion of whom comprised progressive architects and architectural critics associated with the MARS group, Unit One and Circle.45 The organisers’ intention to target an elite audience is reflected by their decision to publish the catalogue in the London Bulletin, the short-lived modern art journal edited by the Belgian Surrealist dealer, E. L. T. Mesens (see n. 45). It was this fraternity who consistently purchased, commissioned and wrote about Nicholson’s most ‘difficult’ Constructivist works from 1935 onward, and found ways to incorporate them into their interiors.46 Nicholson’s long and fruitful association with the architect J. L. Martin has been recently explored by Alice Strang, ‘Circle of friends: Ben Nicholson and Leslie Martin’ (unpublished paper), Ben Nicholson conference, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 18–19 May 2007. One of these patrons was John Summerson, who had married Hepworth’s sister, Elizabeth, in 1938. Summerson also became the first owner of 1938.47 The painting possibly cost 70 guineas (see n. 43). It is not yet known whether Summerson purchased the painting or whether it was a gift or even an ‘in kind’ payment for the Listener review. In a key review of the 1939 exhibition, Summerson extolled the sensual appeal of Nicholson’s new coloured works:

Some of Nicholson’s new paintings seem to me irresistible. Their apparent simplicity lays bare the complexity which results from placing together areas of different proportion, different texture, different colour – a complexity which the painter controls and makes eloquent in an extraordinary way.48 John Summerson, ‘Abstract painters’, The Listener, 16 Mar. 1939, pp. 574.

For Nicholson’s admirers, the Reid & Lefevre exhibition was his most groundbreaking show yet, for it proved that he was literally bursting out of his monochromatic ‘ivory tower’ to embrace the emotional dimensions of colour. Their optimism, and perhaps relief, was expressed by Herbert Read who announced, ‘Now that form has been freed from its representational functions, [for example, in the white reliefs] colour too is released for experimentation’.49 Read, ‘The development of Ben Nicholson’, London Bulletin, no. 11, Mar. 1939, p. 9. See also T. McGreevy, London Round-up, London Studio, vol. CXVII, no. 553, Apr. 1939, p. 224. The palpable excitement generated by the Reid & Lefevre show was possibly heightened by news just circulating that the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim had declared her intention to open a London museum of modern art. This museum, which was to be devoted to all modernisms, was to be headed by Herbert Read, a proposal that both Clark and Nicholson greeted with delight.50 See Nicholson to Read, c.Apr. 1939, in King, p. 326, n. 26 & pp.178–85. The collection was to be made up of loans and donations; however, Guggenheim abandoned the scheme at an early stage.

War

The Reid & Lefevre exhibition was to be Nicholson’s last major showing before the outbreak of war. In May Nicholson and Cecil Stephenson dug a bomb shelter in the garden at The Mall,51 See Checkland, p. 179. and in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty of non-aggression, Nicholson and Hepworth took their family to Cornwall. Elizabeth Summerson packed up their studios. Living in St Ives on the generosity of their friends Adrian and Margaret Stokes, the Nicholsons needed to re-establish a source of income far from the art market in London. With England under threat, that market had changed; the public had started buying English landscapes and little else. In March 1940 Nicholson’s dealer McNeill Reid informed him that he had no hope of getting another abstract show and suggested some semi-representational works would do better instead:

I don’t think from our point of view that pure abstract painting is any use; we never sell much of it, and no matter how great our interest one of our problems today is to keep ourselves alive and to find what might sell, without reducing our artistic standards any more than we can help.52 McNeill Reid to Nicholson, 18 Mar. 1940, quoted in Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 97, n. 21.

Faced with no alternative, Nicholson evolved a commercially successful hybrid genre of abstract painting that incorporated landscape elements and delicate secondary tones such as pink and green. Although he called these lyrical works his ‘potboilers’, they clearly convey the artist’s appreciation of his new Cornish surroundings. For this factor alone many critics were mollified, as the new St Ives paintings clearly manifested, in common with the landscapes of artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, a sense of genius locus, much vaunted by figures such as Clark in this period of crisis, and which paintings such as 1938 so conspicuously lacked.

Despite what looks like an embracing of Neo-Romanticism, Nicholson continued to make Constructivist works, even if he could not easily exhibit them. Kenneth Clark’s use of his official role in the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to further kill off geometric abstract art was yet another obstacle. In 1935 Clark had implied that abstraction was ‘essentially German’ for its over-reliance on theory.53 Clark, ‘The future of painting’, p. 544. Now, in 1939, Clark held that abstract art involved a wilful denial of painful actualities, causing ‘our indignation … to overflow and swamp our detached contemplation of shapes and colours. To be a pure painter seems almost immoral’.54 Clark (ed.), ‘Preface’, Roger Fry: Last Lectures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1939, p. vi.

From the very first list of artists that Clark drew up in September 1939 to undertake paid artistic projects in the national interest until his last, drawn up in February 1940, Clark left out Nicholson. That it was his intention to destroy abstract art seems patently clear from a remark he made to Herbert Read in November 1939. With Nicholson safely four hundred and fifty kilometres away in the south, Clark observed that abstract art and so-called functional architecture were dead ‘and a damned good job too’.55 Clark, quoted in Checkland, p. 189.

For those like Clark who chose Surrealism over abstraction when opting for a stream of modern art, this destruction of the Constructivist cause was one of the most positive outcomes of the war. ‘The Death of Abstract Art’, crowed Geoffrey Grigson in the Listener in 1940. Grigson then went on, condescendingly, to pronounce:

War is emphatic; it may not innovate, but it emphasises inclinations which were concealed by fashion or familiarity … war was only the climax of a total state of affairs which was helping to scotch the drift towards abstract art. Still, abstraction is not something to be buried dishonourably and then forgotten. It was one of the ways taken, up to a point, by the livelier artists of the last 30 or 40 years.56 Geoffrey Grigson, ‘The death of abstract art’, The Listener, 12 Sept. 1940, p. 373.

Encouraged by Read, Mondrian and Summerson, Nicholson ignored provocations of this kind. Although Nicholson’s dogged attempts to re-insert Constructivist paintings back into his dealer’s stock were met with reproach in March 1944,57 See Duncan MacDonald to Nicholson, 28 Mar. 1944, in Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, pp. 58–9. by this time his abstract work was finally starting to be shown in the public gallery sector.58 Six works by Nicholson were included in the exhibition New Movements in Art. Contemporary Work in England: An Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the London Museum, Mar.–May 1942. In September 1944 Philip Hendy, director of the Leeds City Art Gallery, mounted the first non-commercial retrospective of Nicholson’s work at Temple Newsam, a stately home on the city’s outskirts to which Hendy had relocated the Leeds art collection for the duration of the war.59 Philip Hendy, ‘Introduction’, Paintings by Ben Nicholson, Temple Newsam, Leeds, 1944. An exhibition of this kind was impossible at the Tate, which remained closed during the war until 1946. But even had it been open, its director, John Rothenstein, felt nothing for abstract art. As he stated: ‘I fail, beyond a certain point, to respond to the uncommunicative forms and relationships which constitute at the same time the language and message of abstract art’.60 T John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, vol. II, ‘Lewis to Moore’, Macdonald, London, 1956, p. 261. Rothenstein’s assistant keeper, Robin Ironside, who had succeeded Ede in 1936 and was himself a Surrealistic and Neo-Romantic painter, was actively hostile to Nicholson’s abstraction, which to him represented a ‘continental reliance upon theory over the British preference for empiricism and was thus unwelcomely foreign and barren’.61 Robin Ironside, Painting since 1939, Longmans, Green, London, 1947, quoted in Foss, pp. 187–8.

Herbert Read opened the Temple Newsam exhibition and Summerson travelled up to Leeds, reporting back to Nicholson who was too unwell to attend.62 The extent of detail in Summerson’s report suggests that he himself may have been present at the installation of the exhibition (see Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 57, n. 14). The Times covered the event: in measured but positive terms, its writer called Nicholson ‘the doyen of abstract art in England’, and observed how well the show illustrated the logical unfolding of Nicholson’s career, from still-life painter to abstract painter by 1933, and finally to Constructivist: ‘From then [1933] it is a very short time before he has reduced painting to its barest essentials: to rectangles of primary colours flatly painted on large areas of grey and white’.63 ‘Paintings by Ben Nicholson: Exhibition at Temple Newsam, Leeds’, The Times, 14 Sept. 1944, p. 6.

The Leeds retrospective marked a turning of the tide for Nicholson in so far as it heralded a more rational era in which abstract art could once again be addressed. It also brought together three people who were to become a powerful triumvirate in championing Nicholson’s art in the postwar era. Herbert Read and John Summerson were both to produce monographs on Nicholson in 1948. In the meantime, Hendy’s influence on the art world was increasing, as a year later (in 1945) he was appointed director of the National Gallery, replacing Sir Kenneth Clark at the pinnacle of the art establishment.

Polemic 1946

In the more liberal culture of the immediate postwar era, 1938 suddenly become a poster-child for a fresh British outlook. The painting shot to fame in a new philosophical journal of the highest profile. Polemic, edited by Humphrey Slater (a former artist and communist who had distinguished himself in the Home Guard), was created to ‘commission essays by writers who are opposed to the drift back to Romance’. It showcased the new thinking of the most famous British philosophers of the day, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. Nicholson was invited to design the covers of its first two issues. The maiden issue sold out in just two days, ‘such was the hunger for serious reading matter at the end of the war’.64 Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 396.

In the second issue of Polemic Slater dedicated a three-page article to Nicholson arguing that abstract art could elicit emotion and was therefore capable of heightening human experience. One of the works he reproduced in colour to illustrate his case was 1938. Slater’s decision to champion Nicholson ‘in an anguished world at a moment of trembling peace’, and at a time ‘when abstract painting is now not in vogue’,65 Humphrey Slater, ‘A note on the importance of Ben Nicholson’, Polemic, no. 2, 1946, pp. 49–51. reflects the concerted push on the part of its editor and his eminent authors to put British intellectual and aesthetic debate back onto an analytic and speculative footing after a period of seven years in which a sentimental nationalism had dominated British cultural life. Slater’s desire to revive and stimulate wider understanding and acceptance of Nicholson’s abstraction was part of a plan to draw the artist, after an era of conservatism, into a high-profile, united front for literary and visual experimenters.

This was the first time that Nicholson’s Constructive paintings were reproduced in colour, an event all the more notable in light of the ongoing restrictions on wartime printing. It fulfilled a supreme wish on the part of the artist, who had become convinced that the public’s inability to appreciate his abstract paintings was due to a lack of good colour reproductions.66 Nicholson attributed the critical reviews of his 1944 Temple Newsam retrospective to the unavailability of colour reproductions of his Constructivist works (see Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 67). The impact of 1938 was immediate. In the fourth issue, another piece appeared on Nicholson in Polemic, this time by Stefan Themerson, an avant-garde Russian-Polish refugee and filmmaker turned philosopher with links to the Constructivist Moholy-Nagy. In his article Themerson echoed Slater’s endorsement of Nicholson, but went further to demonstrate that Nicholson’s pictures, which Themerson called ‘still-lifes’, referred to objects, squares and circles, as realistically as other still-life painters depicted fish. To illustrate his point, Themerson used a caricature of Nicholson’s 1938 (fig. 6). Its visual quotation of the work is powerful proof that 1938 had acquired recognition within this distinguished philosophical context, following from its reproduction in colour in the same series two issues earlier.

In representing the qualities of a particular shape, Themerson argued, Nicholson, importantly, was not dabbling in universals but in particular realities. This was a claim that Nicholson himself might not have made about his work previously, although it was an idea that he was gradually coming around to.67 ibid., p. 62, n. 34. It was an ingenious point to make at this particular moment because, with the Second World War just over and another seeming imminent with the build-up to Cold War, the credibility of universal concepts had come under question following their abuse in the hands of ideologues. To praise a notion of ‘whiteness’ in Nicholson’s work was, in Themerson’s view, tantamount to validating other generalities, such as ‘the State’, ‘Fatherland’, ‘God’, ‘Race’ and ‘discipline’, in the name of which conflicts continued to be justified.68 Stefan Themerson, ‘Circles and cats’, Polemic, no. 4, July–Aug. 1946, p. 36.

Themerson’s article and whimsical diagram (possibly the work of his illustrator wife, Franciszka,) deliberately adopted the plain, expository mode of his mentor Bertrand Russell to put Nicholson’s art squarely back into the realm of British empiricism. It also evoked the simple pictograms that champions of modern art had begun to use to make links between old masters and contemporary art, and to clearly explain the developmental stages between them. This ‘new rationalisation of modern art’, as Virginia Button has called it, had been inaugurated by the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr’s now-famous flow diagram of 1936 in which he showed the evolution of abstract art (fig. 7).69 Button, ‘Spreading the word’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 68. According to Button, Nicholson particularly admired Barr’s diagram.

While Nicholson had been appreciated since the early 1930s by intellectual figures abroad, Polemic was crucial to him for regaining respectability as a prominent voice within the vanguard of liberal British thinkers. Polemic also lifted the heavy stigma of adjectives such as ‘alien’, ‘doctrinaire’, ‘unfeeling’ and ‘crypto-fascist’ from Nicholson’s abstract works, and repositioned these same works within a new discourse of ‘cool, liberal rationalism, sympathetic to science, hostile to the intellectual manifestations of romanticism, and markedly anti-Communist’ that Polemic represented.70 Collini, p. 396. Nicholson’s painting was chosen as the visual analogue of the positions promoted by figures such as Orwell, Russell and Ayer.

Nicholson himself thought hard about the concessions he would need to make to assume the new role of ambassador of liberalism now open to him, and he sought ways to align his artistic ideas with the new order. Already in 1941 he had speculated that ‘liberation of form and colour is closely linked with all other liberations one hears about’, and that therefore abstract art ‘ought, perhaps, to come into one of our lists of war-aims’.71 Nicholson, ‘Notes on abstract art’, p. 272. In the aftermath of the war and the escalating hostility between the USSR and its former Western allies, Nicholson came to the view that recent world events had rendered extreme positions in art, as well as politics, repugnant.72 See Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 62. He also claimed to welcome the co-existence of modern Romantic art, and to find a positive value in the contrasts between different artistic approaches,73 Nicholson to E. H. Ramsden, 1944, quoted in Button, ibid. a pluralist position remarkably close to the one espoused by Read and Nash in 1933. The greatest concession of all, however, was Nicholson’s decision to disavow the term Constructivist, to free himself of its associations with his old friend Naum Gabo and the Russian movement.74 Nicholson to George L. K. Morris, 19 Mar. 1949, quoted in Button, ibid., n. 36.

The two monographs by Summerson and Read on Nicholson that appeared in 1948 also did much to reinvent the artist as a liberal humanist. Read’s book featured 1938 among the handful of works illustrated in colour.75 Read, Ben Nicholson: Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, Lund Humphries, London, 1948, cat. 75. According to Norbert Lynton, Read had to place pressure on Clark before he would agree in 1943 to a Penguin monograph on Nicholson. Problems with paper supplies and colour blocks further delayed its production (see Lynton, p. 221, n. 13). Quickly then, in the aftermath of the war, 1938 was becoming linked in the public mind with the new values being ascribed to Nicholson’s work, and was shedding its former associations with aggressive and doctrinaire foreign art. In his preface to the popular and accessibly priced Penguin Modern Painters volume, John Summerson dismissed the notion that Nicholson was influenced by Constructivism, stating that he had only ever been influenced by individuals, not ‘trends’.76 Summerson, 1948, p. 12. This series cost 2/6d or the equivalent of 12 pence. Herbert Read’s larger, more expensively produced two-volume work was designed to cement Nicholson’s importance in the international art field. It was, as one artist later put it, the monograph ‘that went into the museum library [throughout] the world’.77 Patrick Heron, conversation with Jeremy Lewison, 8 Mar. 1993, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 71, n. 23. In his introduction Read emphasised Nicholson’s individualism, writing that ‘no painter could be less ideological, in the sense of using his craft to illustrate a thesis’ and that ‘Ben Nicholson has never accepted such an extreme position’ as Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism.78 Read, Ben Nicholson, pp. 17, 20.

The remaking of Nicholson as an ‘apolitical’, liberal artist has particular implications for the Melbourne painting. In 1950 the Museum of Modern Art in New York asked Nicholson to comment on a closely related version, also entitled 1938.79 At least two closely related works from this year, also entitled 1938, were in private collections in the 1940s: 1938 (Painting – version I), later owned by Mrs Neville Burston, and 1938 (Painting – version II) owned by Alexander Calder. Possibly sensing a trap, given the climate of Cold War paranoia, in his reply Nicholson avoided all mention of the Constructivist, internationalist milieu in which he had painted the 1938 works.80 Museum of Modern Art, Department of Painting and Sculpture: Ben Nicholson, Painted Relief, 1939, Collection file [artist’s questionnaire]. Instead he cautiously compared the painting to an 1895 poster entitled Girl reading by the Beggarstaff Brothers (his father William Nicholson and uncle James Pryde), thereby furnishing the work with a conceptual provenance that was purely British, and a Victorian (pre-Russian Revolutionary) one at that.81 Curiously, Nicholson’s explanation of the Burston painting has been accepted without scepticism. See, for example, Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 222, cat. no. 71.

In 1948 Hendy and Read were appointed to the Fine Arts Advisory Committee (FAAC), a branch of the British Council, on a board now weighted in favour of contemporary art. In the three years since the end of the war, the British Council had adapted from being an overt propagandistic body into an ‘unacknowledged arm of foreign affairs supported through a velvet glove of high culture’.82 Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, Yale University Press / Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1998, p. 17. The FAAC’s role was to use art to build bridges with former enemies and to promote Britain as an exemplary model of democracy and diverse cultural excellence. The decision to appoint Hendy and Read ensured that between 1947 and 1960 Nicholson was selected for forty international exhibitions, including São Paulo in 1941 and Australia in 1949. Then, in 1954, he was selected along with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for the British Pavilion in that year’s Venice Biennale.

1938 was included among the fifty-three works by Nicholson at this international exhibition.83 Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, XXVII Biennale, Venice, British Council, 1954, cat. no. 11. Nicholson received the ‘Ulisse’ acquisition prize. Despite postwar paper restrictions, the British Council managed to publish a separate catalogue of its trio of artists at the pavilion. Nicholson received top billing on the cover and his section led the catalogue with an introduction by Herbert Read. The painting then travelled with the Nicholson section as part of a stand-alone monographic exhibition to the premier art venues of the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Switzerland.84 Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Musée National d’Art Moderne (Paris), Palais des Beaux-Arts (Brussels) and Kunsthaus (Zürich). The Council also arranged for a black and white illustration of 1938 to be included in the Stedelijk catalogue. For the Paris leg, the most prestigious of the tour, the catalogue was translated and produced in colour. In 1955, when the show returned to British soil, it was mounted once again in an amended form at the Tate Gallery. This invitation, made at the instigation of the director, John Rothenstein, who had been on the same panel as Hendy and Read, was a surprise to Nicholson, who thought it very ‘broad-minded of the Trustees bec. my work is surely not at all up the street of those I know’.85 Nicholson to Patrick Heron, 22 Jan. 1954, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 76, n. 29.

Although Nicholson’s work still inspired the same kinds of criticisms in Britain that had been heard in the 1930s, the Tate Gallery, swayed by his success abroad, now finally acquired an example of Nicholson’s Constructivist painting. This was part of an even-handed attempt by Rothenstein to fill some of the glaring gaps in the collection of English modernism after the Treasury awarded the Tate acquisition funds for the first time.86 See Garlake, p. 14. By 1955 1938 and its two closest cognate works were out of reach, but the Tate was able to purchase directly from Nicholson a large horizontal painting made up of squares and rectangles, June 1937, which had been shown at the 1939 exhibition but which the artist had always retained (fig. 8).87 June 1937 (painting) had remained unsold after the 1939 Reid & Lefevre exhibition. It was stored in The Mall studio until the Blitz, when it was relocated to a garage in Cornwall. The Tate also acquired a 1935 relief in this year, assisted by the Contemporary Art Society. In 1953 Nicholson wrote to Phillip James of the Arts Council that June 1937 ‘is a particularly complete ptg – it is in fact one of the ‘major’ works of that period, & certainly one of my few so called major works’.88 Nicholson to Philip James, after 20 Nov. 1953, p. 52, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, cat. no. 69, p. 221.

It seems worthy of note that, from 1948, Nicholson had repeatedly sought to pair June 1937 with 1938 or one of its related versions in catalogues and monographs. They were also hung together in this combination at the Venice Biennale, in the subsequent post-Biennale tour venues and in the Tate retrospective of 1955.

American success

In Paris in October 1956 a $10,000 international painting award granted to Nicholson at the Guggenheim Prize exhibition was decisive in sealing his success with American art audiences.89 It was awarded for August 1956 (Val d’Orcia). See ‘$10,000 for Ben Nicholson’, Manchester Guardian, 30 Nov. 1956. Charles and Kay Gimpel of Gimpel Fils, who had been his London dealers since December 1954, had worked hard to promote Nicholson’s work in the United States. Described in 1957 as ‘the most authoritative purveyors of the art of the avant-garde’,90 Basil Taylor, ‘In the bazaar’, Spectator, 16 Aug. 1957, p. 231. Charles’s brother and partner, Peter Gimpel, has recalled how the gallery in the mid 1950s did as much as ninety per cent of their business with Americans.91 See Lewison, Ben Nicholson, p. 83. It was also unique at this time for its practice of keeping stock of its artists, in some cases by strategically buying earlier work from collectors. Peter Gimpel has further observed that the efforts of Read and the British Council in promoting Nicholson made a great difference to its ability to sell his work. ‘Every big prize … was important … it helped enormously’.92 Peter Gimpel, conversation with Jeremy Lewison, 23 Mar. 1993, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, p. 83. Nicholson’s work had reached a peak of market desirability when John Summerson decided in 1956 or early 1957 to place 1938 with the Gimpels.

On 1 February 1957 the Gimpels sold the painting to the American philanthropist and collector of twentieth-century art Richard S. Zeisler, who was already an established admirer of Nicholson’s work.93 Other works by Nicholson in Zeisler’s collection included 1933 (Coin and musical instruments) and Untitled,1950, later gifted to the Columbia Museum. Only twenty-six days later, 1938 appeared on the walls of the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston in a landmark US exhibition of International Constructivism, The Sphere of Mondrian. The exhibition was the brainchild of the museum’s newly appointed curator, Jermayne MacAgy. Such a swift sequence of events suggests that MacAgy and Zeisler may have planned to acquire 1938 specifically for her exhibition, and it seems possible that the Gimpels even approached Summerson to part with the painting on their behalf. Zeisler, who died in 2007, kept 1938 for almost fifty years before bequeathing it to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, to provide funds for the acquisition of further works of art. The painting was placed back on the market in 2007, following which the Melbourne benefactors Loti and Victor Smorgon generously acquired it for the National Gallery of Victoria. In so doing, they fulfilled a long-held ambition of the NGV to own an outstanding example of Nicholson’s Constructivist period.

As this article has shown, 1938 is much more significant in the development of Nicholson’s Constructivism than has so far been recognised in the extensive literature on this phase of the artist’s work. The picture’s unique historical value is based on a combination of three factors: first, its subtle registration of Mondrian’s influence upon Nicholson’s practice in 1938; second, its presence at the 1939 Reid & Lefevre Gallery exhibition, which was the most unified body of Constructivist works that Nicholson ever showed; and finally, its utilisation by the philosophical journal Polemic to radically re-orient public perceptions of geometric abstraction at a crucial moment after the Second World War.

This discussion began by asking ‘whose flag’ was the abstract painting 1938. It was a deliberately rhetorical question, given that Constructivism, which the painting represents, refutes all reference to the external world and hence to a literal object such as a flag. Yet, at the same time, flags themselves do not represent a literal world but use pure form and colour to denote ideas of identity, place and ideology. In this sense their function is not so far removed from one of the capacities of Constructivist art. I have argued that it was anxieties about precisely these types of issues that complicated the reception of Nicholson’s abstract art during the politically unstable years around the Second World War. However, as has also been shown, the abstract qualities of Ben Nicholson’s 1938 are – like those of a flag – so general as to render it endlessly polyvalent, subject to continual shifts of meaning and renewal, dependent upon the historical conditions in which it was, is and may in the future be viewed.

Sophie Matthiesson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)

Notes

I would like to register my gratitude to the following people for their generous assistance in the preparation of this article: Geraldine Aramanda, Laurie Benson, AnneMarie de Boni, Sir Alan Bowness, Sophie Bowness, Jane Bramwell, Predrag Cancar, Ted Gott, James Lomax, Kay Matthiesson, Rosie Micklewright, Jennie Moloney, John Payne, Benedict Read, Judith Ryan, Jessemyn Schippers, Garry Sommerfeld, Timothy Summerson, Angus Trumble, Dianne Waite, Nayia Yiakoumaki, and also the Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, London.

1     Herbert Read, Art in Britain 1930–40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1965, p. 5.

2     Jean Hélion, quoted in Maurice de Sausmarez, Ben Nicholson: A Studio International Special, Studio International, London, p. 13.

3     Read, ‘A nest of gentle artists’, Apollo, vol. 77, no. 7, Sept. 1962, pp. 565–9.

4     Harold Stanley (Jim) Ede, A Way of Life, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 1984, p. 57.

5     For a recent treatment of this group’s activities, see Ted Gott, Laurie Benson & Sophie Matthiesson, Modern Britain 1900–1960, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, pp. 197–206.

6     ‘I feel we represent the most stable & least biased members of the rather difficult collection of people who are likely to constitute a group … I heard from Ben & I shall write to him more guardedly until Barbara is decided upon! … Ben is a good fellow but I do not regard his judgement as entirely sound – & I believe you agree on this’. Paul Nash to Henry Moore, 17 Jan. 1933, quoted in James King, The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1990, p. 130.

7     ‘His confusion would confuse the public, and Ben being so vital and energetic, would inevitably lead to the creation of a new group, to division & back biting when unity is so necessary and desirable’. Read to Paul Nash, 23 Nov. 1934, quoted in Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery Publications, 1993, p. 48.

8     Read, ‘A nest of gentle artists’, p. 53.

9     Read, for example, accurately predicted that the lack of a critical vocabulary would mar the reception of Nicholson’s white reliefs (see Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson: The Years of Experiment 1919–39, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, 1983, p. 33).

10     John and Myfanwy Piper also began to do so from 1936 onwards (see Joanna Gardner-Huggett, ‘Myfanwy Evans: “Axis” and a voice for the British avant-garde’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, Autumn 2000 – Winter 2001, pp. 22–6, esp. p. 24). See also Brian Foss, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939–1945, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, p. 186. For Moore’s concerns about ‘the purely constructivist abstract people’ gaining too much ground, see King, p.165.

11     They comprised the architects Wells Coates and Colin Lucas, painters John Armstrong, Edward Burra, John Bigge, Tristram Hillier, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth, and sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

12     Read, ‘Unit One’, Architect Review, 6 Oct. 1933, reprinted in Unit One: Spirit of the 30s, Mayor Gallery, London, 1984, p. 49.

13     ‘Have had a most lovely painting day. My last ptgs are completely white’ (Ben Nicholson to Winifred Nicholson, 2 Feb. 1934, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 44). The first reliefs slightly pre-date this trip, as Nicholson showed examples at the Seven and Five Society’s exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in Mar. 1934, prompting David Gascoyne to describe Nicholson as ‘performing the death rites of painting’ (David Gascoyne, Art, New English Weekly, vol. 5, no. 3, 3 May 1934).

14     Nicholson, quoted in Sarah Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, John Murray, London, 2000, p. 119.

15     In a letter to Conrad Aiken, 31 Jan. 1935, Paul Nash wrote that Nicholson was planning an international exhibition for the next 7 & 5 exhibition: ‘all the most important foreign abstract artists will be represented by their latest work. This should be rather a swell show and very stimulating to the young idea in London’ (quoted in Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900–1939, Allen Lane, London, 1981, p. 273, n. 28).

16     Nicholson to Jim Ede, Dec. 1934, quoted in Checkland, pp. 149, n. 36.

17     King, p. 153.

18     Quoted in Checkland, p. 148.

19     See Read, ‘Ben Nicholson and the future of abstract painting’, The Listener, 9 Oct. 1935, pp. 604–5.

20     Kenneth Clark, ‘The future of painting’, The Listener, 2 Oct. 1935, pp. 554–5.

21     Virginia Button, Ben Nicholson, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p. 38.

22     John Summerson, ‘The MARS group and the thirties’, in John Bold & Edward Chaney (eds), English Architecture Public and Private: Essays for Kerry Downes, Hambledon Press, London, 1993, p. 305. The full name was the Modern Architecture Research Group. Formed in the same year (1933) as Unit One, MARS was the English arm of the avant-garde Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne.

23     Nicholson was cautiously admiring of the fact that Moore and Picasso had both joined the party (see Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1982, pp. 50–1).

24     Checkland, p. 168.

25     Abstract and Concrete ran between February and June 1936 in Oxford, Liverpool, Cambridge and, finally, London (Lefevre Gallery) and included works by Hepworth, Nicholson, Moore, John Piper and many leading European artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Miró, Mondrian, Gabo, Calder, and Giacometti.

26     Conversations had begun in 1935 between Nicholson, Nicolete Gray, J. L. Martin and Herbert Read (see King, p. 178).

27     On the derisive comments occasioned in 1934 by Nicholson’s and Hepworth’s wearing of berets, see Checkland, p. 133.

28     André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism [1924], in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900–1990, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p. 438.

29     See John Leslie Martin, Nicholson & Naum Gabo (eds), Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, Faber & Faber, London, 1937. Over a thousand copies were sold in Britain and the United States in the first year. On the production of Circle, see Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, pp. 121–2.

30     Checkland, p. 167.

31     Read, quoted in Checkland, p. 169.

32     Barbara Hepworth, ‘Mondrian in London’, Studio International, vol. 172, no. 884, Dec. 1966, p. 288.

33     Nicholson held Winifred’s views on colour in the highest regard. Winifred pointed out to Mondrian that ‘“You are the first person who has ever painted Yellow … pure lemon yellow like the sun”. He denied it, but next time I saw him, he took up the remark. “I have thought about it” he said, “and it is so, but it is merely because Cadmium yellow pigment has been invented”’ (Winifred Nicholson, ‘Mondrian in London’, Studio International, vol. 172, no. 884, Dec. 1966, p. 286).

34     During the 1930s Nicholson is known to have used the commercial primer Coverine as a quick-drying substitute for gesso and the French white house paint Ripolin as a top coat on white reliefs. In 1938 the ground layer has been freely applied in sweeping circular strokes, the wide brush marks visible in the areas around the two circles.

35     Mondrian continued to work on New York City, New York 3 after he relocated to New York in 1940. These transitional works later become the foundation of his last major paintings before his death, the famous New York series of 1941–42. Joosten states that New York City, New York 3 is ‘possibly one of the two greater pictures mentioned in Mondrian’s letter of 10 December 1938 to Harry Holtzman’ (Joop M. Joosten, Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1998, p. 398).

36     1938 (You can be sure of Shell), poster for Shell Mex and BP Ltd, V&A Museum, reproduced in Lynton,
p. 168.

37     See Nicholson, ‘Notes on abstract art’ [Oct. 1941], Horizon, London; revised version in Read, ‘Introduction’, Ben Nicholson, Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, Lund Humphries, London, 1948.

38     Geoffrey T. Hellman, The Talk of the Town, ‘Lines and rectangles’, The New Yorker, 1 Mar. 1941, p. 7.

39     Piet Mondrian to Nicholson, 13 Sept. 1940, quoted in Sophie Bowness, ‘Mondrian in London: Letters to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 132, no. 1052, Nov. 1990, pp. 782–8.

40     Mondrian initially placed Composition en rouge, bleu et blanc: II, 1937 (now in Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris), on consignment with Nicholson and later gave it to him (see Sophie Bowness, p. 785, n. 6).

41     Nicholson, quoted in Sausmarez, p. 7.

42     Sir Alan Bowness has deduced that the painting is most likely no. 8 in the catalogue, ‘from the evidence of the prices in relation to dimensions – 70 guineas according to Lefevre’s archive’ (email correspondence with the writer, 15 Sept. 2008).

43     ‘I have considered the frame which surrounds a work of mine as a vital part of its presentation. Therefore, I have always seen to the framing of my work myself … Frames should be made of natural wood with little graining and of a colour which is not too hot, nor too yellow, and which is not stained or varnished. The corners of the frame should not be mitred diagonally. The four sides should abutt [sic] each other, aligned so that the top side extends over the left side vertical and that the right-side vertical rises so as to extend over the side of the top lateral. Similarly, the left-side vertical is to extend across the end of the bottom lateral while the bottom lateral is to extend across the end of the right-side vertical.’ Ben Nicholson to Tate Gallery, 28 June 1979, quoted in Stephen Hackney, Rica Jones & Joyce Townsend (eds), Paint and Purpose: A Study of Technique in British Art, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1999, p. 162.

44     In a diary entry of October 1932, Cecil Stephenson wrote that he was ‘making large track for pictures for Ben Nicholson’ (see Checkland, p. 107, n. 49). In February 1939 Sybil left Stephenson for E. L. T. Mesens, publisher of Nicholson’s catalogue for the Reid & Lefevre Gallery exhibition, Mar. 1939. On Sybil Stephenson, see Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 52, n. 33; Checkland, p.178.

45     The organisers’ intention to target an elite audience is reflected by their decision to publish the catalogue in the London Bulletin, the short-lived modern art journal edited by the Belgian Surrealist dealer, E. L. T. Mesens (see n. 45).

46     Nicholson’s long and fruitful association with the architect J. L. Martin has been recently explored by Alice Strang, ‘Circle of friends: Ben Nicholson and Leslie Martin’ (unpublished paper), Ben Nicholson conference, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 18–19 May 2007.

47     The painting possibly cost 70 guineas (see n. 43). It is not yet known whether Summerson purchased the painting or whether it was a gift or even an ‘in kind’ payment for the Listener review.

48     John Summerson, ‘Abstract painters’, The Listener, 16 Mar. 1939, pp. 574.

49     Read, ‘The development of Ben Nicholson’, London Bulletin, no. 11, Mar. 1939, p. 9. See also T. McGreevy, London Round-up, London Studio, vol. CXVII, no. 553, Apr. 1939, p. 224.

50     See Nicholson to Read, c.Apr. 1939, in King, p. 326, n. 26 & pp.178–85. The collection was to be made up of loans and donations; however, Guggenheim abandoned the scheme at an early stage.

51     See Checkland, p. 179.

52     McNeill Reid to Nicholson, 18 Mar. 1940, quoted in Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 97, n. 21.

53     Clark, ‘The future of painting’, p. 544.

54     Clark (ed.), ‘Preface’, Roger Fry: Last Lectures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1939, p. vi.

55     Clark, quoted in Checkland, p. 189.

56     Geoffrey Grigson, ‘The death of abstract art’, The Listener, 12 Sept. 1940, p. 373.

57     See Duncan MacDonald to Nicholson, 28 Mar. 1944, in Button, ‘The war years’,
in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, pp. 58–9.

58     Six works by Nicholson were included in the exhibition New Movements in Art. Contemporary Work in England: An Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the London Museum, Mar.–May 1942.

59     Philip Hendy, ‘Introduction’, Paintings by Ben Nicholson, Temple Newsam, Leeds, 1944.

60     John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, vol. II, ‘Lewis to Moore’, Macdonald, London, 1956, p. 261.

61     Robin Ironside, Painting since 1939, Longmans, Green, London, 1947, quoted in Foss, pp. 187–8.

62     The extent of detail in Summerson’s report suggests that he himself may have been present at the installation of the exhibition (see Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 57, n. 14).

63     ‘Paintings by Ben Nicholson: Exhibition at Temple Newsam, Leeds’, The Times, 14 Sept. 1944, p. 6.

64     Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 396.

65     Humphrey Slater, ‘A note on the importance of Ben Nicholson’, Polemic, no. 2, 1946, pp. 49–51.

66     Nicholson attributed the critical reviews of his 1944 Temple Newsam retrospective to the unavailability of colour reproductions of his Constructivist works (see Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 67).

67     ibid., p. 62, n. 34.

68     Stefan Themerson, ‘Circles and cats’, Polemic, no. 4, July–Aug. 1946, p. 36.

69     Button, ‘Spreading the word’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 68. According to Button, Nicholson particularly admired Barr’s diagram.

70     Collini, p. 396.

71     Nicholson, ‘Notes on abstract art’, p. 272.

72     See Button, ‘The war years’, in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 62.

73     Nicholson to E. H. Ramsden, 1944, quoted in Button, ibid.

74     Nicholson to George L. K. Morris, 19 Mar. 1949, quoted in Button, ibid., n. 36.

75     Read, Ben Nicholson: Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, Lund Humphries, London, 1948, cat. 75. According to Norbert Lynton, Read had to place pressure on Clark before he would agree in 1943 to a Penguin monograph on Nicholson. Problems with paper supplies and colour blocks further delayed its production (see Lynton, p. 221, n. 13).

76     Summerson, 1948, p. 12. This series cost 2/6d or the equivalent of 12 pence.

77     Patrick Heron, conversation with Jeremy Lewison, 8 Mar. 1993, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 71, n. 23.

78     Read, Ben Nicholson, pp. 17, 20.

79     At least two closely related works from this year, also entitled 1938, were in private collections in the 1940s: 1938 (Painting – version I), later owned by Mrs Neville Burston, and 1938 (Painting – version II) owned by Alexander Calder.

80     Museum of Modern Art, Department of Painting and Sculpture: Ben Nicholson, Painted Relief, 1939, Collection file [artist’s questionnaire].

81     Curiously, Nicholson’s explanation of the Burston painting has been accepted without scepticism. See, for example, Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 222, cat. no. 71.

82     Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, Yale University Press / Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1998, p. 17.

83     Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, XXVII Biennale, Venice, British Council, 1954, cat. no. 11. Nicholson received the ‘Ulisse’ acquisition prize.

84     Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Musée National d’Art Moderne (Paris), Palais des Beaux-Arts (Brussels) and Kunsthaus (Zürich).

85     Nicholson to Patrick Heron, 22 Jan. 1954, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, p. 76, n. 29.

86     See Garlake, p. 14.

87     June 1937 (painting) had remained unsold after the 1939 Reid & Lefevre exhibition. It was stored in The Mall studio until the Blitz, when it was relocated to a garage in Cornwall. The Tate also acquired a 1935 relief in this year, assisted by the Contemporary Art Society.

88     Nicholson to Philip James, after 20 Nov. 1953, p. 52, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, 1993, cat. no. 69, p. 221.

89     It was awarded for August 1956 (Val d’Orcia). See ‘$10,000 for Ben Nicholson’, Manchester Guardian, 30 Nov. 1956.

90     Basil Taylor, ‘In the bazaar’, Spectator, 16 Aug. 1957, p. 231.

91     See Lewison, Ben Nicholson, p. 83.

92     Peter Gimpel, conversation with Jeremy Lewison, 23 Mar. 1993, quoted in Lewison, Ben Nicholson, p. 83.

93     Other works by Nicholson in Zeisler’s collection included 1933 (Coin and musical instruments) and Untitled, 1950, later gifted to the Columbia Museum.