Everyday life and extraordinary art

Leeds Art Gallery plays host to the launch of a major international exhibition looking at the life and art of two of the UK’s most important 20th century painters, husband and wife Ben and Winifred Nicholson.

What makes this exhibition really special is the fact that it has been curated in collaboration with art historian and curator Jovan Nicholson, Winifred and Ben’s grandson. The sense of family life, and history, runs throughout the artwork on display.

The focus is on the years of Ben and Winifred’s marriage from 1920 – 1931, and the important relationships they formed with other artists, including Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray. Often painting side by side, Winifred was more interested in colour, whereas Ben focused on form, and it’s interesting to see their work develop simultaneously, shifting towards modernism as time progresses and influences change. Paintings are accompanied by ceramics from potter William Staite Murray, which add an extra visual depth to the exhibition.

A strong nautical influence abounds: Cornwall – St Ives in particular – boats, the seaside, beaches, fish, holidays. All are visually stunning in their realistic creation and simplicity. In the summer of 1928, the Nicholsons holidayed at Pill Creek, Feock in Cornwall. Whilst here, Ben Nicholson and friend Christopher Wood made a day trip to St Ives, where they met marine painter Alfred Wallis. His deceptive simplicity had a strong influence on the Nicholsons.

Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Autumn flowers on a mantelpiece’ (1932) is a beautiful example of oil on wood panel. The detail is magnified by the simplicity of the piece, and Ben Nicholson’s ‘Paint, cup and jug’ (1930) finds beauty in the every day object.

Winifred Nicholson said in the eighties: “I want life and paintings to be the same so that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.” This really is an exhibition of everyday life and extraordinary art.

18 October to 12 January 2013, Leeds Art Gallery.

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