Heritage: Ben Nicholson was one of a ‘nest of gentle artists’ working in Belsize Park in early 20th century
- Credit: Felicitas Vogler, courtesy the British Council Archives
In the latest of our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at British abstract painter Ben Nicholson’s life in Belsize Park.
In 1938 the artist Ben Nicholson was instrumental in helping bring his friend, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, to Belsize Park and to safety from the Nazis.
His hospitality was further extended by lending the émigré a bed for his new rooms at 60 Parkhill Road, in Belsize Park.
Nicholson was well connected and his other friends and collaborators included Picasso and Paul Nash.
The artist once swapped his still life oil, Jug and Playing Cards, for a white alabaster carving called Head made by another friend, Henry Moore. Moore treasured the piece all his life. The writer Herbert Read called the area in which they worked in Belsize Park “a nest of gentle artists”.
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Small in height, immaculately dressed in an informal style of his own devising, often sporting a flat cap and wide collared shirt with various layers, Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) certainly looked the part of an artist. He was born at Eight Bells, in Denham, Buckinghamshire, on April 10, the eldest of four children of painter Sir William Newzam Prior Nicholson (1872–1949) and his first wife, Mabel Scott Lauder Pryde (1871–1918), also a painter.
As a young boy Nicholson was deeply attached to his mother, whom he described as “the rock on which my whole existence has been based”.
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The family were far from affluent but moved in good society and Nicholson’s father was known to be a man of style. Family friends included the writers Rudyard Kipling and Arnold Bennett and the artist Walter Sickert, with whom they spent summer holidays in Dieppe.
At one time Sir William Nicholson painted a portrait of the 44-year-old creator of Peter Pan, J M Barrie. Barrie even invited him to design costumes and sets for the stage version. Nicholson junior recalled: “After a lot of art-talk from our visitors my mother always said that it made her want to go downstairs and scrub the kitchen table… I always remember my mother’s attitude when I came to carve my reliefs.”
The family moved houses on a number of occasions staying at various times in Hampstead, Bloomsbury, Chiswick, Woodstock and Rottingdean. In a letter Nicholson described the interior of one of the family homes. “Terrific elegance in my parents’ home – Chippendale chairs & Dighton prints, & white panelled walls & an enormous chandelier and Aubusson carpets.”
Alongside this refinement there were a lot of interesting domestic objects. The letter continued to describe the domestic setting: “For as long as I can remember my home was full of the most lovely spotted mugs & striped jugs & glass objects which [my father] had collected.” Nicholson inherited his father’s passion for collecting and one of his early works, dated c.1911, is in fact of a striped jug.
Between 1904 and 1906 the family lived at number 1 Pilgrim’s Lane, in Hampstead. Years later, as an adult, Nicholson was to return to the area to live and work, first during the 1930s when he occupied the Mall Studios, off Tasker Road, in Belsize Park and later in the ’70s and ’80s when he returned to live on his childhood street, this time at number 2 Pilgrim’s Lane.
Nicholson’s formal education was intermittent. He was a pupil at Heddon Court, in Hampstead and Gresham’s School, in Holt, where he excelled at games. He had a great flair for ball games of all sorts (tennis, golf, table tennis) and would, in later life, often draw an analogy between the perfect poise needed for both drawing a tree and playing a ball game well.
He attended the Slade School of Fine Art, in London, from 1910 to 1911, and cemented a friendship with fellow pupil Paul Nash. Nicholson claimed that he spent more time playing billiards at the nearby Gower Hotel. In 1912 Nicholson spent a year learning French in Tours, France and decided to become a painter rather than a poet. During his stay he received a letter from his painter father, suggesting, “Why not do both?” Blake did.
As an asthmatic, Nicholson was deemed unfit for military service in the First World War, and from 1917 to 1918 he travelled to the United States to undergo an operation on his tonsils and later travelled around the country.
On November 4, 1920, Nicholson married Winifred Roberts also a painter. The couple had three children and formed a working partnership which was mutually beneficial. Nicholson later recalled that he learned a great deal about colour from Winifred and a great deal about form from his second wife, Barbara Hepworth.
In 1931 Nicholson met the sculptor (Jocelyn) Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) at an exhibition in which he was exhibiting alongside her first husband, Jack Skeaping. During that summer, the pair met again while on holiday with, among other notables, Henry Moore and his wife Irina, and fell in love.
The group of friends had rented a farm at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast “where they talked, walked, bathed, played cricket, and worked”.
Once described as “a juggler with words, a fancier of fast cars, a champion at diabolo and a fiend at table tennis”, Nicholson was easily bored and Moore recalled, “Irina knew how to deal with Ben best”. Moore continued: “She would say, ‘Now, Ben, when you’re bored and you want to go home, don’t hesitate, go!’”
Nicholson and Hepworth started to share a studio in Hampstead in 1932 and at this time Winifred moved to Paris. In order for Nicholson to see his children he, and Hepworth, would pay regular visits to the city.
On one such occasion they dropped into Picasso’s, who showed them “a miraculous succession of large canvases... from which emanated a blaze of energy in form and colour”.
Back in Hampstead the couple shared their experiences with Henry Moore and other artists in their community. On November 17, 1938, the couple were married at the Hampstead Register Office following Nicholson’s divorce from Winifred earlier that year. Nicholson and Hepworth had triplets, in 1934, two girls and a boy.
Art historian Dr Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter and a trustee of the Hepworth Estate, said: “He [Nicholson] shared with his father, William, a love of puns and practical jokes. He was a determined avoider of formality and convention and disliked personal publicity. His singleness of purpose and dedication to his work were absolute.
“Nicholson was critical of intellectual approaches to art that lacked intuitive feeling and poetry. He was a very perceptive writer on art and a marvellous letter-writer.”
A blue plaque was erected by English Heritage in 2002 at 2B Pilgrim’s Lane, Hampstead, Nicholson’s home from spring 1974 until his death in 1984.