Ben Nicholson

Composition, 1938

Pencil & gouache on card: 15.7(h) x 12.2(w) in /

40(h) x 31.1(w) cm

Signed and dated on the reverse: Ben Nicholson 1938; signed, dated and inscribed on the backboard

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BA 269



Denham 1894 – 1982 London


Composition, 1938


Signed and dated on the reverse: Ben Nicholson 1938; signed, dated and

inscribed on the backboard: Ben Nicholson 1938 / Spanish Relief / 26 York Terrace NW1 / drawing 8 gns /reserve price 4 gns /Nicholson / 7 Mall Studios / Parkhill Rd / NW3 London

Pencil and gouache on card: 15 ¾ x 12 ¼ in / 40 x 31.1 cm

Framed size: 25 x 21 in / 63.5 x 53.3 cm



Sold by the artist in aid of the victims of the Spanish Civil War circa 1938

Brook Street Gallery, London

Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 30th June 1982, lot 183

Robert and Rena Lewin, London



The tonal and formal purity of Composition, 1938, echoes the preoccupations which inspired Nicholson’s seminal series of white reliefs dating from 1934. Initially rendered free-hand, the vocabulary of these works; square, rectangle and circle, became more precise and tightly controlled with the aid of ruler and compass, increasing the tension between interacting shapes and creating a

more powerful visual impact. By varying the strength and width of the pencil lines in the present work, the artist plays with the illusion of depth between planes, the thick border line of the composition recreating the effect of a shadow cast were the drawing carved in relief. Nicholson takes the visual association further by subtly colouring the right hand column in a mottled light-brown wash emphasizing the fibre of the paper and recalling the texture of a piece of board.


The absence of colour which characterises this strand of Nicholson’s work at the time (made concurrently with his coloured abstract works and still life subjects), was part of a broader cultural trend as well as a result of the artist’s personal experience. As Virginia Button summarises, ‘white was hugely significant in the context of 1930s international modernist art, architecture and

design, which heralded a new, brighter, cleaner world. Ben admired Le Corbusier’s pristine, modern architectural style. He may have read Theo van Doesburg’s essay ‘Vers la Peinture Blanche’, published in Art concret (1930), which argued that white was the spiritual colour of the times…Nicholson’s maiden flight in an aeroplane on 30 December 1933 also had a direct impact, as letters to Winifred link his works to the ‘transcendent’ experience of flying above white clouds’ (V.

Button, Ben Nicholson, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p. 25).


Nicholson’s use of white and the increased precision of line and form can also be linked to his association with Mondrian, the vast areas of white canvas bound by Mondrian’s black grids and the white-washed walls of his (and later Nicholson’s) studio. At Nicholson’s encouragement, Mondrian arrived in London in 1938, staying in a room found for him by the artist close to the Mall Studios in Hampstead where he and Hepworth lived. Here Mondrian joined ‘the Nest of Gentle Artists’, at a time when London was briefly centre of the international avant-garde (Herbert Read, ‘A Nest of Gentle Artists’, Apollo, September 1962).


Hepworth’s marble carvings of this period, exhibited alongside Nicholson’s reliefs at the ‘Abstract and Concrete’ exhibition in 1936, were exploring a similarly radical aesthetic of layered geometric planes and circles, her upright Monumental Stele, 1936, in blue Ancaster stone (destroyed during World War II) exhibiting a marked similarity to the present drawing.




















Denham 1894 – 1982 London



Ben Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire in 1894, the eldest of four children of artists Sir William Nicholson and his first wife Mabel Pryde. He spent his early education at Heddon Court, Hampstead and Gresham’s School, Holt before studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1910–11, where he met and befriended Paul Nash. Following graduation, Nicholson spent

time in France and Italy before living in Pasadena, California for health reasons between 1917–18. He was declared unfit for active service during the First World War due to his asthma. In 1920 Nicholson married the artist Winifred Roberts and they subsequently divided their time between London, Cumberland and Switzerland, often visiting Paris on the way. Having experienced Cubism

first hand, he produced his first abstract paintings in 1924. That same year he held his first solo exhibition at the Twenty-One Gallery, London and was invited to become a member of the Seven and Five Society. 


Accompanied by the artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson visited St Ives, Cornwall for the first time in August 1928, where they discovered the painter Alfred Wallis who would become an important influence on them both. In 1931 he met the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and within a year began sharing a studio with her in Hampstead. Together they held a joint exhibition at Tooth’s Gallery, London in 1932. Nicholson would go on to marry Hepworth after his divorce from Winifred Nicholson was finalised in 1938. From 1933 Nicholson became a member of Unit One and was invited, together with Hepworth, to join the group Abstraction-Création. He began making abstract reliefs in 1933 and a series of white painted reliefs the following year which would establish his international reputation. Winifred’s move to Paris in 1932 with their children meant that Nicholson visited often, enabling him to establish links with other artists there, including Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp. In 1934 he met Piet Mondrian and played an active role in his move to Hampstead in 1938. Nicholson co-edited the publication Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art with the sculptor Naum Gabo and the architect Sir Leslie Martin in 1937.


In 1939 Nicholson and Hepworth relocated with the triplets (born in 1934) to Cornwall where he resumed painting landscapes and coloured abstract reliefs. His international reputation grew during the 1950s as a result of a series of large still lifes for which he received several important prizes. In 1954 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale (alongside Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon) and

was awarded the Ullisse prize. The following year the Tate Gallery held the first of two retrospectives of his work, the second being shown in 1969. In 1958 he moved to Switzerland with his third wife Felicitas Vogler (Hepworth and Nicholson having divorced in 1951) where he began to concentrate once more on abstract reliefs including a large wall relief made in 1964 for the

Documenta III exhibition in Kassel, Germany. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1968. Nicholson returned to England in 1971, living until 1974 in Cambridge and then in Hampstead where he remained until his death in 1982.

Post War BritishBen Nicholson