The mixed reception accorded to the Tate Gallery's major retrospective of Ben Nicholson's work in 1994, to mark the centenary of his birth, was a measure of the distance we have travelled from the utopian ideals of the modern movement and our growing estrangement from the circumstances of the time. Yet it seems surprising that we should have had to wait so long for the reassessment of Nicholson's key contribution to 20th-century British art provided by that exhibition, the recent, full-scale monograph on the artist by Norbert Lynton and, now, the first comprehensive biography, by the critic and writer on art, Sarah Jane Checkland.
Among the major obstacles to forming a balanced view of Nicholson's life, in relation to his work and that of his contemporaries, has been the wealth of documentary material waiting to be explored and the partial inaccessibility of that material. Nicholson was never the easiest of people to get on with, and he became increasingly obsessed with trying to protect the details of his private life, and his work, from interpretations of which he would not have approved - just why, is made abundantly clear in this biography, which relates, in sometimes merciless detail, the extent to which he was prepared to subject his three wives, his lovers, family and friends to his egotistical demands as an artist.
The author comments at length on Nicholson's touchiness, in his dealings with anyone who might have posed a threat to his authority or independence, coupled with an erratic generosity towards his younger disciples and anyone he hoped to convert to the cause of his art. This she attributes to the circumstances of his troubled childhood, in which he was alternately spoilt and neglected by his adoring mother and forced to compete with his siblings for the attention of his talented, but capricious father, the society portraitist, Sir William Nicholson. (As Ben was to learn later, from a friend who dabbled in psychotherapy, Alfred Adler's explanation for his neurosis would have been his early feelings of inferiority, brought about by conflict with his dominant father.)
Nicholson's career, spanning seven decades, offered intriguing parallels to the birth and evolution of modern art in Britain, although he took some time to grasp the essentials of his métier and to acquire the necessary confidence to "bust up all the sophistication all round me". First as a student at the Slade School (1910-11) and then through his travels on the Continent, he became acquainted at first hand with the latest developments in contemporary art, though it was not until his marriage to the painter, Winifred Roberts, in 1920, that his apprenticeship came to an end and he launched himself on a life-long career as an "abstract painter" (whatever he may have meant by the term, at different stages in his development).
Winifred, whose own talents were considerable, seems not merely to have given Nicholson confidence in his artistic mission, but to have provided him with a rationale for continuing to work. Through her, he came into contact with the teachings of Christian Science, and the author argues, plausibly enough, that these strengthened his belief in the spiritual value of his art and its enduring ability to communicate values of universal significance.
A turning point came with Nicholson's encounter with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the beginning of a triangular relationship, which seems to have continued for some time after Nicholson and Hepworth had set up house in the latter's Hampstead studio and Winifred had taken off to Paris with her young children. The contacts which Nicholson and Hepworth now made with artists, including Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Mondrian (some of them through the intermediacy of Winifred) were consolidated through Nicholson's letter-writing activity, as "a kind of Paris-London liaison", as he put it. In the course of this, Nicholson and Hepworth became fully integrated with the international constructivist group, Abstraction-Création, in Paris and were instrumental in introducing some of the Paris-based artists to avant-garde groupings in London, such as the short-lived constellation of artists, architects and designers associated with the exhibition and publication, Circle , in 1937.
Nicholson's biographer is in no sense blind to her subject's defects, including his apparent inability to accept any constraints on his personal liberty for more than a limited period (around seven years, he once estimated), but she reserves her bile for Hepworth, whom she portrays as affected and ruthlessly scheming. Whatever the truth of this, Hepworth provided Nicholson with the toughest challenge to his artistic ambitions, and the element of competition undoubtedly spurred both artists on to produce the most radical and, ultimately, the most satisfying work in their respective careers: Hepworth's exquisite small geometrical carvings in white marble and Nicholson's celebrated series of white reliefs, from the mid-1930s. Surprisingly, but characteristically, Nicholson claimed that his October 1934 ( white relief - triplets ), completed 48 hours before Barbara Hepworth gave birth to triplets, was a prophecy of this event, denoted by a square and two circles, representing the male and female forms.
The "gentle nest of artists", as Herbert Read described the international artistic community that had settled in Hampstead, was broken up and scattered by the threat of Nazi invasion, and Nicholson and Hepworth (shortly to be joined by Naum Gabo) took refuge in the remote artists' colony of St Ives, where Nicholson had first encountered the naïf painter Alfred Wallis in 1928. Here, both artists began to temper the severity of their abstractions with elements relating to the local climate and surrounding landscape. "King and queen" they may have been to the younger artists, such as Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, who began to assemble in St Ives after the second world war, but their personal relationship had already begun to fall apart, until it ended in divorce in 1951, precipitated by the arrival on the scene of Nicholson's newest lover, Rhoda Littler, who is publicly identified here for the first time. Nicholson's ascendancy over the new generation of abstractionists and landscape painters was increasingly challenged, from the 1950s onwards, by his younger rivals, Heron and Lanyon, whose allegiances shifted from Paris to New York. At this juncture, he met and married Felicitas Vogler, a German journalist in her mid-30s, and set off with her in 1958 to start a new life in Switzerland. Thereafter, his growing wealth and international fame, as an acceptable representative of modern British art, merely served to disguise his increasing isolation from the artistic currents of the day. After splitting up with "Feli", in 1971, he spent his last years in London, where the consolation of a close, platonic friendship with a married woman some 30 years his junior was insufficient to overcome his growing misanthropy, symbolised by the multiple locks he installed on his front door and his communings with a spiritualist organisation, called the White Eagle Lodge, which he hired to ward off imagined intruders.
Checkland has written a lively and, at times, witty biography, which neatly captures some of the contradictions of this most contradictory man, who, for a period of more than 20 years, from the early 1930s, stood out on the international scene as one of the pivotal figures in contemporary British art. It is regrettable that the owners of the copyright to Nicholson's works refused her permission to reproduce any of them, on the grounds that the artist would not have approved of this posthumous intrusion on his privacy. Her account in no way supplants the valuable art-historical research of earlier writers, but it provides a valuable corrective to overly formalist interpretations, by reminding us of the survival of craftsmanly and autobiographical elements in even the most abstract of Nicholson's works and of his own insistence that "as I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing".
Henry Meyric Hughes, an independent curator and consultant, was director of exhibitions, South Bank Centre, from 1992-96.
Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art
Author - Sarah Jane Checkland
ISBN - 0 7195 5456 X
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 486