Overshadowed by her husband, Ben Nicholson, and the woman he left her, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, Winifred Nicholson’s art has been largely the love of only those who have sought to seek her out. The Abbott Hall’s new exhibition is a celebration of her art and fondness for the Cumbrian landscape, seeking to give her the accolade she deserves.
The exhibition starts at the beginning of her marriage and its obvious that being a housewife through the 30s meant that she painted pretty much what what was going on and what was in the house at the time. Landscapes that she painted with Ben, portraits of her husband and children through to flowers in vases. These windowsills filled with different blooms provided the inspiration for many decades of painting and are contained explosions of colour where she experimented with light, shape and outline. Her timeless landscapes such as ‘The Sycamore’ 1922 and ‘Ullswater’ 1949 provided endless creative stimulation.
You can sense the movement in her paintings, often her gestural marks and sgraffito embodied the beauty of her subject in a graceful, mild-mannered and poetic manner. Overall Impressionistic in style and with a vivid colour palette, taking in ‘Cranesbill St Bees’, ‘Evening at Boothby’ and ‘Cumberland Flowers’ (1940s) you feel you could inhabit the world Winifred lived in quite easily. Her paintings do indeed provide a window into endless opportunity and her constant enquiry into colour and place.
Moving through the exhibition and you start to not only see but feel her paintings as they radiate rainbows of colour. Her last two decades were spent at Bankshead and continuing her lifelong fascination of colour Winifred started to use prisms which added vibrant luminosity and brilliance of pure colour into her work. ‘September Salpiglossis’ 1980 and ‘Salpiglossis Dark’ embody this new
direction and showcase a darker, more holistic vision of the world surrounding her perhaps as she entered the latter years of life.
Finally at the end we are heralded with the definitively abstract ‘Triumphant Triangles’ (1970s) and I wonder if this is where Winifred was having the last laugh. Its a shame that the exhibition didn’t feature more of Winifred’s abstract work but I guess they are hard to come by as she didn’t paint a lot in her lifetime. A relatively unknown period of her life was spent in Paris, after her split with Ben, where she hung out with some of the most famous painters of that time including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Alexander Calder. This heralded a new spark of direction and she began using colour but freed from representation – abstracting form and making geometric shapes. During these few years she produced many abstract drawings but when the Second World War began she moved back to England and found it hard to continue this strand of work in Cumbria. Hence she sought to focus on extending the ‘abstract colour’ in her paintings.
I find this period of her life fascinating and the new exhibition gives us clues as to the complex nature of the world she lived in. Being pulled in many directions but ultimately finding peace and harmony in the still life’s she painted in Cumberland, where she gave Ben a run for his money and taught him a thing or two about colour.
Also running alongside their main Summer exhibition is ‘The London Masters’ featuring works by three famous painters: Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Michael Andrews. A small but fantastic selection of paintings and print work by them as well as RB Kitaj and George Bevans. Typically intense charcoal drawings made by Auerbach are energetic and full of vigour. The room next door also incorporates a display of paintings by Bridget Riley, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Hughie O’Donoghue.
|Lucien Freud ‘Self portrait’ etching|
On until 15th October