Lives in pictures

Charles Cowling



Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The portrait below by Mabel Pryde is of her son, British painter Ben Nicholson, as a teenager studying at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1910-1914. His face appearing out of darkness somehow captures both the confidence and insecurity of youth. The mood, evoked by both expression and compositional simplicity, brings to mind Rembrandt, and yet there’s the hint of the dawning modern age.


Ben Nicholson – Mabel Pryde


Nicholson was exempted from military service in World War I due to asthma. His brother Anthony died in action, and his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

Nicholson himself lived to a ripe old age (d. 1982), becoming a leading light of the British abstract movement.


Ben Nicholson – Cornish Landscape


His talent was inherited from both sides of the family, his father Sir William Nicholson being famous for brilliant illustrations such as his Alphabet series.


William Nicholson – A


 Ben’s sister Nancy was an accomplished fabric designer.


Nancy Nicholson – Fabric design


Ben’s brother Christopher was an architect, whose work includes Augustus John’s studio.


Christopher Nicholson


Ben married three times, first to artist Winifred Nicholson: 

Winifred Nicholson – Still Life

Ben’s second wife was sculptor Barbara Hepworth:

Barbara Hepworth – Two Forms (Divided Circle)

Ben’s third wife was photographer Felicitas Vogler:

Felicitas Vogler

  One of Ben’s contemporaries at art school was Stanley Spencer:

Stanley Spencer – Hilda, Unity and dolls


Another art school contemporary was Edward Wadsworth:


Edward Wadsworth – Abstract


Another art school contemporary was war artist Paul Nash:



Paul Nash – The Ypres Salient at Night



During trips to Paris, Ben met Mondrian and Picasso who inspired his abstract and cubist direction:


Piet Mondrian – Composition


Picasso – Skull and Pitcher


Christopher Wood – St Ives


But much of the distinct Britishness of his work stems not just from Slade influences and London society including Hepworth in Henry Moore. Now famously linked to the St Ives artist colony, he first visited the Cornish fishing village in 1928 with fellow painter Christopher Wood. There, he met the fisherman and painter, Alfred Wallis, whose naïve style, often capturing the perilous power of the sea, had a profound impact. Although propelled into a circle of the most progressive artists of the 1930s, Wallis never sold many works, and died in poverty in a Penzance workhouse. Nicholson said, ‘To Wallis, his paintings were never paintings but actual events’.

Alfred Wallis


The works of both Wallis and Nicholson can be seen at Tate St Ives. Last November, Nicholson’s Sept 53 (Balearic) sold for $1,650,500 at Christie’s, New York:


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