Winifred Nicholson is one of the best-loved British artists of the early twentieth century. Never tiring of her exploration of the genres of still life and landscape, Nicholson often hybridised the two. She developed what was to become a characteristic conceit – that of a still life arrangement on a window sill with an abruptly foreshortened view beyond.
“I like painting flowers,” Nicholson once stated. “I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paintbrush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower … to me they are the secret of the cosmos.”
This sincerity which underpins her paintings accounts for their endless ability to provide their audience with pleasure, but their gentle warmth should not lead her admirers to underestimate her work. Nicholson deftly utilised Impressionist, Modernist, and Romantic tendencies to create a unique style and distinct touch which, though often bordering on the naïve, would be near impossible to imitate.
This clear artistic voice was evident from an early stage and her technique, particularly the adoption of a muted palette, was to be hugely influential on her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, though he was to eventually leave both the marriage and his early style behind upon meeting Barbara Hepworth in the 1930s. Her influence can also be traced in the works of contemporaries including Ivon Hitchens and Christopher Wood, with whom she was close. This keen eye and technical understanding also came to bear in her relationships with prominent French Modernists of the period. Nahum Gabo, Jean Hélion, and Giacometti became friends, and Nicholson cannily purchased work by all of them. She was also the first British collector to buy a work by Mondrian, as well as accompanying the artist to Britain from Paris in 1938.
From the late 1960s, Nicholson entered into the most experimental phase of her career. Colour and light had always been the driving force behind her artistic explorations, Nicholson once articulating in a letter to her daughter that “…all painting is to me painting of air and sky – that holds colours and light – not pictures of objects.” This became increasingly true and, as light and colour is broken down into its purest form within a prism, her work became more pared back and abstracted. The offered painting Awake, painted in 1973, exemplifies this stage of her development. The title and the artwork are inseparably intertwined: the hazy colour palette and loose, textured daubs of brushwork successfully evoking the thin light of the early morning, and our own instinctive response to it.
This work came from the artist’s family’s own collection, before being featured in exhibition at the prestigious Crane Kalman Gallery, who are renowned for championing the best work of the Modern British era of artists. It will be included in our Modern British and Contemporary Art auction on 17 January 2018.