Ben Nicholson: From the Studio

John Webb, Ben Nicholson’s Studio, London, 1982 © The Late John Webb FRPS

This week I am in the company of Pallant House Gallery Director Simon Martin exploring the gallery’s latest exhibition Ben Nicholson: From the Studio.

I ask Simon about the central themes of the exhibition, he replies “During a career spanning six decades Ben Nicholson used the humble still life as a vehicle for experimentation. It’s interesting how antique objects inspired one of our most famous modernists. There is a real sense of his pleasure in objects in his work.”

The exhibition looks at the inspiration of objects whilst telling the story of the relationships in Ben Nicholson’s life. In particular his artistic and romantic relationships with his wife Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

In a letter to a friend, Nicholson acknowledged ‘I owe a lot to my father…not only from what he made as a painter, but from the very beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and goblets, and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects he collected. Having those things in the house was an unforgettable early experience for me.’

This creative exhibition explores the importance of still life and the studio within Nicholson’s art from his early, highly finished realist paintings to the abstract reliefs that secured his international reputation. Distinctive striped jugs, mochaware mugs and glassware are displayed alongside the paintings, carved reliefs and works on paper which they inspired. The photograph of Nicholson’s studio shows it filled with objects.

Nicholson would move from painting in a realist way to a faux-naïve manner, and then to abstraction with the development of an interplay between space and depth in his famous carved relief panels which explore the same interests but with a new vocabulary.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were influenced by their time in Paris where they spent time with Constantin Brȃncusi, Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, all of whom had explored cubism and abstraction through objects.

Ben Nicholson, June 16- 47 (still life), Oil and pencil on board, Private Collection, © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

The abstract June 16 – 47 (Still Life) expresses the joy and stability in being accompanied in life by beautiful objects be they humble ceramics, glass, or paintings and sculptures by one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

The wholeness of the art and objects exhibited together reminds me of the aesthetic of Jim Ede’s home Kettles Yard in Cambridge. Jim Ede would acknowledged the influence of Ben and Winifred Nicholson on him.

Simon Martin concludes “These objects were a vital presence in the numerous studios Nicholson inhabited during his life and were of central importance in his still life paintings.”

The beautiful works on show, the very personal narrative provided by the objects and the focus on Nicholson’s relationships gives this refreshing exhibition a rich textural quality – modern but not minimalist.

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until the 24th October 2021.

The Visual Arts and Music Celebrated in the Context of a Home

Jim Ede’s bedroom table © Paul Allitt/Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge University.

This week we are returning to Kettle’s Yard which holds one of the most important collections of 20th century art in the country in its beautiful interiors, the better for being in the context of a home. It has always been open to students and visitors.

Jim Ede, its creator, was a remarkable man who promoted many leading British and Continental artists in the 20th century. In 1954 whilst living abroad he dreamed of creating a living place where works of art could inspire and bring joy in a domestic, relational setting. The generous discipline of his rhythm of life would result in a sequence of rooms and spaces which form a series of 360 ̊ processional compositions.

Jim Ede would write ‘Kettle’s Yard is in no way meant to be an art gallery or a museum, nor is it simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste, or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability which more and more we need to recognise if we are not to be swamped by all that is so rapidly opening up to us.’

Ede acknowledged the importance of Ben Nicholson in shaping his taste in the 1920s.

View of Jim Ede’s bedroom with works by Alfred Wallis, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson © Paul Allitt/Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge University.

Jim Ede’s bedroom is perhaps the most personal room in the house. The room reflects the life, interests and relationships of this gifted connoisseur and critic. His intuitive placing of objects is reflective and disciplined which blesses the viewer with a sense of stillness, of being gathered, whilst exciting the eye and our imaginations. It is a space for lively questioning minds and open hearts.

Above the head of his bed hang two Alfred Wallis paintings ‘Five Ships (Mount’s Bay)’ and ‘Houses at the water’s edge (Portleven)’. Jim Ede delighted in Wallis’ directness and simplicity of language born out of a lack of formal training. Wallis, a fisherman, painted on scraps of wood and card with unevenly applied boat paint giving expression to his memories of the scene. His distorted perspective gives the viewer a sense of being amongst the boats. These qualities and his restrained palette lend his work an extraordinary immediacy. On a ledge beside his bed is an early Henry Moore Head carved from Shakespeare’s Head Cliff chalk. Jim Ede would write about its ‘still energy’ commenting ‘I have always loved this Henry Moore which he gave me so long ago’. Henry Moore, like Gaudier-Brzeska, was influenced by non-Western primitive forms and the bust ties in with the ‘domesticated primitive’ aesthetic which emerged after the Great War. Beside it rests the small ‘Abstract’ dating from 1941 by his friend Ben Nicholson. Through the open doorway in the bathroom a George III provincial oak chest of drawers adds warmth and balance to the aesthetic of the space.

Jim Ede installed bay windows in the cottage at Kettle’s Yard to improve the effects of light. In the bay window of his bedroom is this circular pine table with a wrought iron base. Low down on the wall beside it you can see an etching by Ben Nicholson. An eclectic still life of concentric graduated pebbles give voice to an incoming tide the grain in the wood echoing the movement of the water across sand, a scallop shell, a spherical green glass float, flowers, all speak of the importance of found and natural objects at Kettle’s Yard. Amongst them you can see a small bronze by Henri Gaudier-Brzseka titled ‘Toy’.

Jim Ede hoped ‘that future generations will still find a home and a welcome, a refuge of peace and order, of the visual arts and of music’ at Kettle’s Yard. His hopes have been fulfilled. To find out more visit

Pallant House Gallery Exhibition unites St Ives & Sussex

Terry Frost, Blue, Black, White, 1960 - 61, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, The George and Ann Dannatt Gift (2011) © Estate of Terry Frost. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015
Terry Frost, Blue, Black, White, 1960 - 61, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, The George and Ann Dannatt Gift (2011) © Estate of Terry Frost. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015

Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘St Ives and British Modernism – The George and Ann Dannatt Collection’ celebrates these two remarkable individuals through their art collection.

The collection reflects George and Ann’s particular tastes in which they were almost always united. But the art also speaks of their friendships with the artists themselves. They stood against the sort of country house taste and way of life expressed at Charleston House for example. Their home, East End, in Cornwall, provided what has been described as an English ‘abstract aesthetic’. There was always new art to delight the visitor but it was hung and displayed so as not to be crowded. There was a quality of careful composition in the interiors, as though in a painting.

St Ives and British Modernist pictures telling the story of the Dannatt’s home, East End, in a Georgian interior

The care with which this current exhibition has been hung in the 18th century part of the galleries provides an intimate context. It allows us to understand how the composition and domestic quality of the interiors at East End informed the viewer’s engagement with the art.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, together with a number of others, drew many significant artists to Cornwall before the Second World War. St Ives would become a refuge for modernism in England and a beacon for a new generation of younger artists.

John Wells, Project, 1942, gouache ink and pencil on card, Pallant House Gallery, The George and Ann Dannatt Gift (2011) © Jonathan Clark Fine Art, Representatives of the Artist's Estate
John Wells, Project, 1942, gouache ink and pencil on card, Pallant House Gallery, The George and Ann Dannatt Gift (2011) © Jonathan Clark Fine Art, Representatives of the Artist's Estate

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Barbara Hepworth dominated sculpture in St Ives. Between 1949 and 1959 Denis Mitchell assisted Hepworth. By about 1960 Mitchell’s sculptures combined Cubist geometry with converging contours, angles and mass, redolent of the landscape. His polished bronze sculptures are often vertical in form but ‘Selena’, shown in the foreground here, represents a body of work in the horizontal. It was bought by the Dannatts from the Marjorie Parr Gallery in 1969. These optimistic works responded to the predominate taste of the time for hard edged balanced forms. Taste shared by the Danatts.

In the foreground is Denis Mitchell’s polished bronze ‘Selena’, from 1969, set in the 18th century Pallant House Gallery, from the George and Ann Dannatt Gift (2011)

The Dannatts had met Denis Mitchell in 1963 through Terry Frost and their patronage was enormously important to the sculptor as he established himself. Terry Frost’s ‘Blue, Black, White’ from 1960-61 is evocative of St Ives. When you visit this seaside town the light which inspired artists of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot fail to speak to your heart. The light dances off the sea whilst lines of shadows, cast by scudding clouds, move swiftly and dramatically across the landscape. This wonderful oil painting on canvas captures the essence of this elemental experience. For me it is one of the highlights of the show.

From 1960 Denis Mitchell shared a studio in Newlyn with his friend, the artist, John Wells. Both where great encouragers to George Dannatt as he began to work as an artist himself. John Wells lived in Ditchling in Sussex until 1921. He studied medicine at University College Hospital, London between 1925 and 1930, attending St Martin’s School of Art in the evenings of 1928 and 1929. Like George Dannatt he pursued his artist career later in life. John Wells arrived in St Ives in 1940 from the Scilly Isles where he had been a GP. His work ‘Project of 1942’, shows an openness and sensitivity to the sensations of the landscape. Natural forms would continue to awaken textures and shapes in Wells and remain central to his work.

This fresh and exciting exhibition explores the George and Ann Dannatt Gift, one of the most significant donations Pallant House Gallery has received. It includes a body of largely unseen and newly conserved paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints by key figures associated with the St Ives Group of Artists in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. These include works by Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Denis Mitchell, John Wells and John Tunnard.

‘St Ives and British Modernism – The George and Ann Dannatt Collection’ runs until 20th September 2015 at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information go to or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 24th June 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.