At Maison Pallant, a large crate is filled with an assortment of objects: a glass-stopper decanter, a wide-rimmed blue-striped mug, a pewter dish, a clay-red striped jug, a large necked vase. end, several small glasses of rum. The objects – all English, mostly Victorian and Georgian – are laid out for reading, as if Kettle’s Yard was doing a sale and had set its wares on trestle tables in the street. But these are not junk: the objects belonged to Ben Nicholson, accumulated throughout his life, carried with him from studio to studio, their lips and handles appearing and reappearing in his works. Nicholson had a collector’s impulse, an eye for the structural and material qualities of things. He preferred simple dishes: beer mugs and cider pitchers in Staffordshire cream or mocha pots. His collection, Jim Ede wrote in 1930, was “fortunately human.” He liked the shape of an object, its visible history of use. He was once bargaining for a set of tools from a plumber, attracted by the elegant simplicity of old keys, the crumbling patina of their surfaces, lines and curves.
By showing these objects alongside the paintings in which they appear, âBen Nicholson: From the Studioâ offers a new way of seeing the artist’s work. The exhibit suggests that the objects provide a miniature account of the evolution of Nicholson’s style and, perhaps, of the changes he made to modern British art. This is a tentative suggestion; nothing is dogmatic here. The exhibition simply asks us to look, to observe the ways in which certain objects materialize over and over again – this time an experience of color, this time of surface texture, this time of structure and form. It invites the pleasure to notice the permutations of a jug or a bottle through several works, and to meet the object itself, old, chipped and scratched, almost talismanic, almost pathetic in its tangible form.
A large, stout cider jug ââedged in black, brown, and blue appears in several paintings. In a first work of 1914, the jug is represented in front of a drape, luminous on a dark interior of olive green and brown. When Nicholson painted it a decade later, in 1924 (painting â trout), he took only his stripes, flattening them to form one panel among several interlocking shiny panels. The Jug’s Journey traces that of Nicholson, from his rejection of opulent naturalism to daring reductions, the reduction of abstraction. “The more I think and see of ptg,” he had written the year before, the more abstract things interest me to the exclusion of everything else. Other jugs became the center of his experiments. In 1928 (striped jug and flowers), who returns to the figuration, Nicholson seems to follow the example of his wife (Winifred Nicholson cultivated his flowery and luminous still lifes in the Cumbrian farm which they shared) and yet is more interested in the structure of the jug, his protruding handle, its colored bands. In 1948 (still life), another jug ââis studded with black and white cat eyes like its original Staffordshire, but with its handle cut out and repeated like a loose ear. Nicholson was busy separating his objects at their joints, separating their constituent parts. Elsewhere, the patterns of his crockery – striated, checkered, geometric – float freely among abstract shapes.
The artist’s most daring moment came in 1933, when he carved his first relief in wood. A relief from 1936 is presented in the gallery next to a thin ceramic vessel, a dialogue of circles in the purest white. Yet after moving to Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth in 1939, it appears Nicholson retreated from the total abstraction of the previous decade in favor of a hybrid surrealist style, which fuses still life with landscape painting. In its Cornish harbor scenes, jugs and ships jostle as if they were standing, larger than life, on Mousehole Beach; or else the dishes are integrated into the architecture of the city, the mugs like squat buildings, the neck of a large vessel protruding like a church steeple. The objects are crowded together like the small fishing villages themselves. Groupings of things have always been Nicholson’s starting point: “My paintings of ‘still life’ are closely identified with the landscape,” he observed in 1957, “more closely than my landscapes which perhaps relate more to “still life”.
In a final room, Nicholson’s later works from the 1950s to the 1970s appear to have been reduced to their earliest skins, shining green, cream, and white. A shelf of English glassware is on display: a soda bottle, a bowl with two handles, an ewer, a fire glass, a carafe with an arrow-shaped stopper. Nicholson’s lines get very clean. In May 1955 (green chisel), the shapes are superimposed on a bluish stone background; in 1972 (corked vase and goblet), three vessels are separate but connected, their intersections creating spaces within themselves. How many shapes are there, three or more? Only the cap of the carafe remains whole, floating like a doorknob or a light bulb.
Does an exhibition like this risk taking Nicholson’s work back to its domestic roots? In St Ives, Hepworth has a permanent museum dedicated to his suits and tools. On the contrary, the numerous photographs of Nicholson’s studios demonstrate the care with which a fireplace has been arranged. The objects are now familiar: stout jugs, tall mugs, bottles and decanters. Nicholson lived alongside them, worked with them. They were present, acting as prompts, conduits in his experiments with color and form.
‘Ben Nicholson: Du Studio’ is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until October 24.