Why I don’t like Ben Nicholson

It was at an exhibition at Kettles Yard (before the new extension and when they had wonderful exhibitions about the items in Jim Ede’s historic collection) that I thought Ben Nicholson was an insecure fraud, what amazes me is how many people adore him. Though someone I spoke to told me that his white abstracts and etchings are popular because they fit in any room, they become perfect for collectors.

The chameleon of art Ben Nicholson moves from friend to friend like an artistic vampire, sucking up their style and way of painting until his paintings look just like theirs. In my view he did have talent but, no direction for it, and that is where the insecurity is. I just find it confusing why all the artists he was around are now seen to be in his shadow, while he a poor shadow of their work.

Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire, and was the son of the artists Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. He studied at the Slade School of Art, 1910-11. He spent 1912 to 1914 in France and Italy, and was in the United States in 1917-18. He married the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920. Over the next three years they spent winters in Lugano, Switzerland, then divided their time between London and Cumberland. In 1931, Nicholson’s relationship with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth resulted in the breakdown of his marriage to Winifred. He and Hepworth married in 1938 and divorced in 1951.


 Christopher Wood – Cumberland Landscape, 1928


 Ben Nicholson – Cumberland Landscape, 1930 

Naturally there are good and bad points about Nicholson, in some ways he was a bully in other ways he was a well connected person who could put artists in contact with dealers. One of those was when Nicholson and Christopher Wood discovered Alfred Wallis, a fisherman who turned shop keeper until his wife died. Wallis had taken up painting as a hobby like many Victorians. Then he would have been called an ‘amateur painter’, today he would be called an ‘outsider artist’. I think both Nicholson and Wood could see a primitive painter who had no desire to paint copies of art he liked (like most Victorian amateur painters) – but painted the life he knew and could see. His paintings sold for two shillings each and Jim Ede was motivating galleries in London to sell his work too.

Wallis was not a rich man, he painted on whatever he could find: Old board, paper and the inside of tins or driftwood. Though highlighting Wallis to the world it could be argued that Nicholson was making himself look more important, I think this is flippant – but what I find more interesting is that Wallis is as natural and shocking to the artwork at that time as one of Duchamp’s ready-made objects.


 Ben Nicholson – Untitled – Cornish Port, 1930s

The moment I knew I was angry at Nicholson was when I saw his works inspired from being around Alfred Wallis. It isn’t the painting, it was the way Nicholson had snapped the corners off to make it look authentically impoverished – that was the moment I knew the man was a shit. He wasn’t an artist who was inspired by his contemporaries, he was a vampire to them.


 Alfred Wallis – Two Boats’, Alfred Wallis, c.1928 

In order to level my argument out – I will say how good it was that Wallis did live to see his work in major galleries. The Metropolitan Museum of New York bought one of his paintings in his lifetime, but he still found it hard to make a living. Nicholson and Wood included him in the Seven & Five Societyʼs exhibition in 1929 as a guest member, but over the next decade his work was only collected by a small circle of other artists and collectors of modern art. He did end up in the workhouse after suffering from delusions and paranoia of his new found fame.

Wallis believed that his neighbours resented his fame, believing him to be secretly rich. In one of his last letters, to Ede, he wrote: i am thinkin of givin up The paints all to gether i have nothin But Persecution and gelecy [jealousy] and if you can com [come] down for an hour or 2 you can take them with you and give what they are worf [worth] afterwards. These drawers and shopes are all jealous of me.

When Wallis was in the workhouse he appealed to Nicholson for money to buy his freedom but he sent him a box of paints to work his way out.

Nicholson, since 1928, had groomed Wallis with gifts, and that patronage and his collection of Wallis paintings brought out his competitive side. (Sven) Berlin succinctly tells us that there were discussions of how they could help Wallis but his suggestion that a collection should be made among artists and writers came to nothing.

It was Adrian Stokes who organised the grave for Alfred Wallace to be in St Ives Cemetery with a sea-view rather than the Salvation Army and pauper’s grave he was given by the workhouse. Bernard Leach made the ceramic tiles that decorate his grave


 The Grave of Alfred Wallis with lighthouse tile design by Bernard Leach

The confusing state of the 7&5 Society 

The Seven and Five Society was an art group consisting mainly of ex-servicemen who had been art students before the war. Their goal was to exhibit  work rather than have a bold manifesto or be tied to an art style. It was easier to exhibit work in large numbers as the cost would be reduced on mass. The society was set up in 1920 but in 1924 Ben Nicholson was made a member. He more or less became a cuckoo in the nest for the group and elected his friends as members. In 1929 the group added the new members of Christopher Wood, Cedric Morris, Sidney Hunt, William Staite Murray, Frances Hodgkins, Jessica Dismorr, Evie Hone, Edward Wolfe and David Jones, as well as Alfred Wallis as a guest exhibitor. Nicholson voted to change the name to the ‘7 & 5 Society’ to look more modernist but failed to get the group changed to ‘7 & 5 Abstract Group’.

The old members were confused and angry that their group was being steamrolled into following his way and with his elected friends Nicholson could vote in new rules. One new rule was that exhibitions were to be non-representational and the hanging committee were only empowered to select and hang abstract. This move finally segregated the original members. The reaction was the departure of a number of artists in 1934: Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, Frances Hodgkins, Cedric Morris, Len Lye and Percy Jowett. Replacement members and exhibitors included John Piper, Arthur Jackson and John Cecil Stephenson, all of whom worked in a non-representational manner. After this point the group renamed itself as the ‘Seven and Five Abstract Group’ in 1935 but only had one show after that point and the group was disbanded.

This post all comes to a division of the man and the art – like the music of Michael Jackson, the architecture of Albert Speer and some of the work of Nicholson, the men in this list are not as worthy as the work.

David Wilkinson – The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St Ives Art, 2017
 Wikipedia – Alfred Wallis 

Discover Suzanne Cooper


 Suzanne Cooper – The Busman’s Holiday

To discover a new work or artist is always exciting, but it must be rather perplexing to some people who have lived with artists and their work, and over time find it admired. This happens many times with families accepting works of art on walls, but not enquiring. 

A famous example of this is Evelyn Dunbar. She had died in 1960. Her work and her studio was packed up and distributed about the family soon after. In 2013 the wife of Evelyn’s nephew was watching Antiques Roadshow and saw the expert value one of her paintings at £40,000 – £60,000. Members of the family started to look for the works!

They turned out to include more than 500 paintings and drawings by Evelyn. Another nephew had been tracking the contents of Evelyn’s “lost studio”, dismantled after her death, with its contents sold on or given away to family and friends, and compiling a record of her paintings; the find doubled the number of her known works ♥

With the help of a commercial gallery the works were costed at a market price and presented to the public to buy, along with a major retrospective of these new works. A PR Video on Dunbar can be found here.

In the case of Suzanne Cooper, the family knew of the works but sought for recognition for her. They have also reprinted some of her woodblocks for sale. Her family own 14 of her paintings and various woodblocks and the original blocks, 1 painting is in the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, but around 12 works are ‘lost’ and yet to resurface in the market.

Born in 1916, Cooper grew up in Frinton, Essex, the town with the reputation. We know that she was educated at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London under Iain Macnab and Cyril Power. 

Based in 33 Warwick Square, Pimlico, London, the Grosvenor School was housed in a mansion built in 1859 by architect George Morgan for James Rannie Swinton, the Scottish portrait painter. In 1924 the house was sold following the divorce of Lady Patricia Ellison (of Louisville, Kentucky) and Sir Charles Ross (of Balnagown). 

Iain Macnab married Helen Wingrave, a famous dancer and dance instructress. Macnab used some of the building as teaching rooms for his Grosvenor School and others are living quarters while his wife operated a dance studio and gave private lessons from the ball room.

The Grosvenor School would have been the hippest place to be taught at the time and the printmaking department was having a renascence of modernism with lino and woodcuts. It is clear that Cooper was influenced by Macnab’s style in woodcut. 


 Suzanne Cooper – Back Gardens


 Iain Macnab – Cassis-sur-Mer

During Cooper’s time as a student she exhibited paintings and wood-engravings at the Redfern, Zwemmer, Wertheim and Stafford Galleries, mostly as part of the Society of Women Artists and the

National Society of Painters, Sculptors and Print-Makers, the later being reviewed below in 1938. 

I liked the prints of Rachel Roberts, a newcomer to these exhibitions, and also those by Suzanne Cooper, Eric King, Joar Hyde, and John O’Connor.

Christopher Wood’s patron, Lucy Carrington Wertheim bought one of Coopers paintings Royal Albion, she later donated it to the Auckland Art Gallery in 1948. It was at this time that Cooper was painting in oils and her work mirrored Christopher Woods in tone and composition. 


 Suzanne Cooper – Royal Albion, 1936

Suzanne Cooper was one of many artists who were taken under the wing of Lucy Carrington Wertheim, who was first encouraged by Frances Hodgkins to set up a modern art gallery. This delightful depiction of the Royal Albion hotel shows a common seaside view, with small boats drawn up on the beach opposite, in the protection of the groynes which can be found on many British beaches. The artist’s use of simplified blocks of form and colour was popular with members of the St Ives school of painters.

The fashionable appeal of the Grosvenor School linocuts did not last long, however. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. ♠

The Second World War came and the Grosvenor School Closed in 1939. Cooper married Michael Franklin in 1940. They had three children, and she produced no more large-scale paintings, though continuing to work in pastels and chalk. She died in 1992. 


 Suzanne Cooper – The Carol Singers


 Suzanne Cooper – Street Scene


 Suzanne Cooper – Still Life


 Suzanne Cooper – Renwick Coals


 Christopher Wood – Drying nets, Treboul Harbour, 1930

†  The Scotsman – Tuesday, 08 February, 1938
Auckland Art Gallery 
Lino Cutting and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art – artrepublic
♥ Evelyn Dunbar: the genius in the attic, The Guardian 

Eddie Marsh

Last summer I was reading ‘A Crisis of Brilliance’ by David Boyd Haycock, it is a wonderful layer-cake of young artists lives as they study at the Slade School of Art on the eve of the First World War and a book I recommend to all to read.

Many of the artists featured are supported by a patron, Eddie Marsh, who not only bought their work but he entertained them and introduced them to people in society who would advance their careers.


Marsh was a strange and unique person. In his career as a civil servant he worked as Private Secretary to a succession of Great Britain’s most powerful ministers, particularly Winston Churchill.

He was the sponsor of the Georgian school of poets and a friend to many poets, including Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. He was a discreet but influential figure within Britain’s homosexual community.


 Matthew Smith – Woman Reclining, c.1925–6

Some of the money Marsh had to spend on art was the remainder of a family legacy from the death of his great-grandfather, Spencer Perceval in 1812, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated. Parliament voted to settle £50,000 on Perceval’s children (today it would be around 8 million), with additional annuities for his widow and eldest son. 100 years later and Marsh was using the money to buy art.

Although Spencer Perceval possessed six sons and six daughters, some portion of this grant drifted down to Eddie Marsh through his mother. He refused to use any of what he called ‘the murder money’ for his personal requirements; it was from this fund that he bought, with taste and knowledge, the collections with which he has now enriched the public. †


 William Roberts – Sam Rabin vs Black Eagle, 1934

After Marsh’s death in 1953 his friends collected accounts of him and published a booklet, edited by Christopher Hassall and Denis Mathews. As it is long out of publication, I have typed up John Rothenstein’s piece on Marsh’s art collecting below. All the pictures in this post were owned by Marsh.


 Mark Gertler – Agapanthus, 1914

John Rothenstein on Eddie Marsh

There is a serious disadvantage to an upbringing in an artist’s household. Paintings, drawings, sculpture are apt to be so ubiquitous that they may fail to excite. My father being a painter and also a collector, it seemed to me in my early years that works of art were for the most part little more than part of the furnishing of our house. It is true, however, that when I visited other houses and found dull pictures on the walls or none at all, I was aware of an almost piercing sense of bleakness. But when I first visited Eddie Marsh’s chambers at Gray’s Inn, it was with no sense of bleakness but with the consciousness of something amounting almost to a new experience that I looked at his pictures.


 Stanley Spencer – Apple Gatherers, 1912-13

I had not come to look at his pictures; I don’t suppose I was aware that he possessed any. Like many other young men I had come, either shortly before or after leaving Oxford, to consult this benevolent oracle about the perplexing problem of how best to spend my life. I can’t recall any word of advice he gave; but I do recall, almost as clearly as though it were yesterday, the immediate fascination exercised by the pictures which hung, frame to frame, from floor to ceiling, covering every vertical space, not only of wall but of door, and, no less clearly, the kindness with which Eddie responded to the interest his pictures stirred in me. We looked at everything there was to see. And what things there were! Wilson’s Summit of Cader Idris (his bequest of which to the National Gallery, he said, lent an added pleasure to his visits there, that of choosing the place where his ghost would see it on the walls) and Blake’s Har and Heva batbing.


 Richard Wilson – Cader Idris, 1774 (Exhibited)

But it was the contemporaries that gave me the sharpest and most pleasurable shock: the works of painters with whom I already had some acquaintance. There were the splendid Self Portrait and the The Apple-gathers by Stanley Spencer (an artist who had not yet held an exhibition), The Dancer: and Parrot Tulip’s by Duncan Grant, The Cornfeild by John Nash, a water-colour of tall trees by his brother Paul, and a lamp-lit bedroom by Gertler.


 John Nash – The Cornfield, 1918

The spectacle of so many line examples of the work of an emerging generation of painters, displayed with such affectionate, admiring confidence strengthened the impression I had that there was a school of painting in England deserving of much more respect than most of my contemporaries were inclined to accord to it.


 Henry Moore – Woman Seated with Hands Clasped, 1929

My visit was followed by several others, but it was not until many years later that I came to know him well, when I had the good fortune to be associated with him in the running of two institutions particularly dear to him: the Tate Gallery, of which he was a Trustee from 1937 until 1944 and Acting Chairman during 1940 and 1941, and the Contemporary Art Society, of which he was Chairman from 1937 until 1952.


 Duncan Grant – Parrot Tulips, 1911

What made this association particularly delightful for those who had a part in it was Eddie’s attitude towards these two institutions. For him the Tate and the Contemporary Art Society were never primarily institutions at all; they were friends to be fought for, to be enriched by his generosity and, from time to.time, to be gently chided. And as such they responded to his friendship with gratitude and affection.


 Duncan Grant – The Dancers, 1911

Eddie was not only loved at both the Tate and the Contemporary Art Society, but he reposed in them a special degree and quality of trust. He was capable of a catholicity of taste that at moments provoked his friends to wonder whether there was any work of art which he didn’t like. In his heart, however, he remained faithful to the artists the Spencer and the Nash brothers, Grant, Gertler, and their contemporaries who had first aroused in him the lust of possession.


 Paul Nash – Elms, 1914

The works of later painters he often, as he confessed, ‘took great though often in efficacious pains to understand and enjoy’; yet he never expected art to be changeless, and he desired the Tate and the Contemporary Art Society to collect in accordance with their most imperative convictions, whether or not these happened to conform to his own.


 Christopher Wood – Siamese Cats, 1927

The last time I saw him, on is December 1952 at the last meeting of the Society’s Executive which he attended, it had been resolved, as a tribute to his unique services, to commission a portrait of him by Graham Sutherland.

A message from the artist was read out willingly accepting the commission but regretting that he could not undertake it until the autumn of 1953. In a voice that arrested by its intense melancholy Eddie exclaimed, ‘The sands are running out’. In the silence that followed could be read his friends’ mournful recognition that he had spoken the truth. Four weeks later he was dead.


 Stanley Spencer – Self Portrait, 1912


 Walter Sickert – The New Bedford, 1915.


 Cedric Morris – Breton Landscape,1927


 Eric Ravilious – The Yellow Funnel, 1938


 Walter Monnington – Study of a Woman, 1934

Eddie Marsh – Sketches for a composite literary portrait of Sir Edward Marsh, Lund Humphries, 1953
Paintings and Drawings from the Sir Edward Marsh Collection, The Contemporary Art Society 1953