Ben Nicholson - Life & Work

Posted by: David 09-10-2014

Ben Nicholson’s art challenged the norm and influenced the British and international artistic landscape to a huge extent. His art inspired people working in all mediums and he remains one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. A large portion of his life was spent in St Ives, so Cornwall can rightly claim to have influenced the man who influenced so many others.

With Nicholson’s work exhibited at the Tate, we take a closer look at his life and work.

Early life

Nicholson was born in 1894, in Buckinghamshire. After studying at the Slade School of Art he spent several years in France and Italy, before moving to the United States in 1917. Nicholson married his second wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, in 1939 and lived in London. During several trips to Paris, Nicholson visited the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Piet Mondrian amongst others.


Influenced by his artist father, Nicholson’s early paintings were mostly of still life. However in the 1920s, having been interested by Post Impressionism and Cubism, Nicholson began to work on producing more abstract pieces. In 1933 he began to produce reliefs in what would become his signature style: strong colours and geometric shapes. His style of hard lines, and sharp angles translated well to other mediums such as etching and carving.


Nicholson’s awards and achievements are many. He won several first prizes, including at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1952 and the Guggenheim International painting prize in 1956. In 1968 he received the Order of Merit. Retrospective exhibitions containing Nicholson’s work have been held all across the world. His work came to be seen as the quintessential embodiment of British modernism.

Life in Cornwall

Nicholson and Hepworth relocated to St Ives shortly before the Second World War. They had three children to support so both artists had to change their focus in order to make a living, and this saw Nicholson switch to painting landscapes, still in abstract, of locations across the county, often St Ives, as they were easier to sell than his signature white-on-white relief paintings. Nicholson lived and painted in Porthmeor Studios, set right against the beach, which are still used by artists today, and the exact studio that Nicholson painted in is used by the Tate for their residency program.

Nicholson’s work was bold and original. Some of his paintings are still on display inside the Tate. For a better understanding of his life and work, you can also hire an iPod touch from the gallery, which will take you on a guided walk around the town, noting points of interest, and exploring sites of importance during Nicholson’s life.


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