Ben Nicholson

Project 1945

Oil on cardboard: 7.5(h) x 8(w) in /

19(h) x 20.3(w) cm

Signed, dated and inscribed on the reverse: Ben Nicholson / 1945 / project / Chy an Kerris / Carbis Bay / Cornwall

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BS 204



 Denham 1894 – 1982 London


Project 1945


Signed, inscribed and dated on the reverse: Ben Nicholson /1945 / project / Chy an Kerris / Carbis Bay / Cornwall

Oil on cardboard: 7 ½ x 8 in / 19 x 20.3 cm

Frame size: 8 ¼ x 8 ¾ in / 21 x 22.2 cm

In its original frame



The Lefevre Gallery, London

Pamela White (1920–2013), acquired from the above, then by descent

Private collection, UK



London, The Lefevre Gallery, Ben Nicholson: Drawings 1921 – 47; Paintings and Reliefs 1921 – 38, 1946 – 47, May 1947, no. 67, as Project 1945-6


I could not be bothered to read Mondrian’s theories. What I got from him – and it was a great deal – I got direct from the experience of his paintings. The impact was very powerful, but writers on art cannot understand that you can have vital life without being able to read or write” – Ben Nicholson


On 5th April 1934 Nicholson visited Piet Mondrian’s studio for the first time. The studio was located in the Montparnasse district of Paris and served as Mondrian’s private sanctuary away from the loud city. In 1937, Nicholson used his constructivist text Circle to state that a work of art should “take its place in the structure of the world, in everyday life” as it is essential for an artist’s work to become an “actual experience” within their life.[1] Never was this statement truer than when applied to the overwhelming experience of Mondrian’s studio. Years later in a letter written to John Summerson, Nicholson spoke frankly about the impact this extraordinary environment had upon him: “(Mondrian) lived there for 25 years & during that time had not been outside Paris & he’s stuck up on the walls different sized squares painted with primary red, blue & yellow – & white & pale grey – they’d been built up during those 25 years. The paintings were entirely new to me & I did not understand them at the first visit … the thing I remembered most was the feeling of the light in his room & the pauses & silences during & after he’d been talking. The feeling in his studio must have been not unlike the feeling in one of those hermit’s caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws.”[2]


In 1938 Mondrian moved to London and lived close to both Nicholson and Naum Gabo in Hampstead. Over this short period of time the artists’ creative dialogue continued and between 1934 and 1938 – when Nicholson left London for Cornwall and Mondrian for New York – Nicholson executed a series of geometrical compositions where colour, line and form were exposed in their purest form. In Mondrian’s essay, ‘Plastic Art and Non-Plastic Art’ (featured in Circle: international survey of constructive art) the artist expands on the Neo-Plastic principle that works of art must be constructed through an objective representation of form. Adopting and adapting these principles, Nicholson experimented with form, he reintroduced colour into his carved reliefs and executed a number of his abstractions in oil.  


Project 1945 is reminiscent of the rectilinear works that Ben Nicholson produced in the mid 1930’s. The geometrical abstraction that Nicholson had adopted from leading Modernist pioneers, such as Mondrian, during this period was utilised to create abstract reliefs. These works employed clear use of colour and formal purity to confirm the artists’ conception of a serious idiom in Modernism. Project 1945 has a clean cut structure that is hard-edged in nature when compared to Nicholson’s earlier works. However, the open space that frames the central structure alleviates the flat design and creates a generous spatial illusion. Firm, vertical rectangles dominate the central composition and are placed together within the lower passage of the work in bold colours unlike the upper elements that recede tonally into the background. A number of Nicholson’s reliefs created during this period are thought to derive from still-life motifs on table tops. This motif was frequently used by Cubist artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, artists whose work Nicholson profoundly understood and treasured. The strong vertical forms of the striking scarlet and burgundy against the pure black could have originated from still-life elements such as bottles. ‘In terms of Modernism the association of still life with monumental abstract art in Ben Nicholson’s reliefs … make us aware that he was fusing genres, and here in a particularly bold and significant way.’[3]


Ben Nicholson, 1940 (painted relief – plover’s egg blue)

Oil on carved board: 47.5 x 48 cm

National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art





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.

[1] Quotations by Ben Nicholson taken from Circle: international survey of constructive art, J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo (eds.), Faber and Faber, London, 1937, p.75.

[2] A letter from Ben Nicholson to John Summerson, 3rd January 1944, [TGA 20048.1.38]

[3] Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1993, p. 167.

Post War BritishBen Nicholson