The British artist Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981) over a long and varied career spanning 60 years is chiefly noted for her delicate colour sense, mostly expressed through her depictions of flowers, although she also created exquisite portraits and a number of abstract paintings.
In her numerous articles and letters to family and friends, Winifred wrote engagingly about her creativity, remarking 'flowers create colour out of the light of the sun, refracted by the rainbow prism. So I paint flowers, but they are not botanical or photographic flowers. The flowers are sparks of light, built of and thrown out into the air as rainbows are thrown, in an arc.'
Winifred (it is usual to refer to her by her Christian name to distinguish her from Ben Nicholson) also had a gift for friendship with other artists, notably her husband Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, Piet Mondrian and Li Yuan-chia.
Born Winifred Roberts she received her first painting lessons from her grandfather, the painter George Howard (1843–1911), 9th Earl of Carlisle. He was a friend of a number of the Pre-Raphaelites, notably Edward Burne-Jones, and it was natural for Winifred, who had inherited Howard's paints when he died, to study at the Byam Shaw Art School in London, which she attended before the First World War and briefly afterwards.
However it was on an extended trip to the subcontinent, Ceylon, India and Burma in 1919–1920 that her eyes were opened to the possibilities of colour and 'light came alive' for her. There she 'noticed how eastern art uses lilac to create sunlight', and it is this colour, or more often its near neighbours magenta, or violet, which is the key to her colour schemes and the first colour to look for in her paintings.
In November 1920 Winifred married the painter Ben Nicholson and they spent their honeymoon travelling around Italy looking for a house to live in. Eventually, they found a location they liked in Lugano, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and it was there they spent the first three winters of their married life, experimenting freely side by side. On their travels between England and Lugano they typically spent a week in Paris, looking at works by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Derain and Rousseau amongst others, and then absorbing what they had seen in Lugano. In an intensive period of painting in their last winter in Lugano, Winifred found her theme – flowers in a pot, bowl or vase on a windowsill with a view behind.
Later she described this as the best painting spell she ever had, and her exuberance and excitement is evident in Window-Sill, Lugano, which, as it was their last day and her paintbrushes had already been packed, she painted with her fingers.
During the 1920s Winifred and Ben Nicholson moved frequently, notably enjoying a trip to Cornwall in the summer of 1928. They stayed first as Feock, a small village that overlooks Pill Creek, a tidal reach that flows into the Fal estuary – shown in her painting Estuary.
Here Winifred also painted Summer where the lime-green ground has been left uncovered in many parts of the support, creating a vibrant tension with the luscious flowers. Later, on the same trip, they moved to St Ives, where Winifred met the marine painter Alfred Wallis.
In the summer of 1931, the Nicholson's marriage came under strain and they began to separate, with Ben going to live with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. At first, Ben was a regular visitor to Winifred and their three children. Later, although they saw less of each other, they remained friends and maintained a lively correspondence up until Winifred's death. For a short time Winifred lived on the Isle of Wight, where she painted portraits of her children in party hats that at the same time carry a hint of the sadness as the absence of their father.
Between 1932 and 1938 Winifred was based in Paris, where she painted the view from her flat at the Quai d'Auteuil overlooking the Seine across to a Citroën factory on the other bank, but also a number of abstracts, including Quarante-Huit, Quai d'Auteuil. Notably, Ben, when staying with Winifred, made one of his finest white reliefs, also named after the street where Winifred lived, 1935 (white relief, Quai d'Auteuil). Winifred knew many of the artists of the Parisian avant-garde, including Mondrian – she was the first British person to buy a painting by Mondrian – Jean Hélion, Naum Gabo, Giacometti, Brancusi and Arp and their influence can be felt in these abstracts.
In her article 'Liberation of Colour', Winifred wrote about her main colour idea, explaining: 'Yesterday I set out to pick a yellow bunch to place as a lamp on my table in dull, rainy weather. I picked Iceland poppies, marigolds, yellow iris, my bunch would not tell yellow. I added sunflowers, canary pansies, buttercups, dandelions, no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, tow everlasting peas, magenta pink, and all my yellows broke into luminosity. Orange and gold and lemon and primrose each singing its note.'
It is this juxtaposition of various yellows and magenta pink that is the key colour relationship of her painting, though the hues are often tweaked so that the sizzling quality remains. These colour harmonies are particularly evident in Honeysuckle and Sweetpeas.
Winifred was very much a painter of place, and the most important locality for her was Cumberland (now Cumbria) where she grew up and was based for most of her life: 'I have always lived in Cumberland – the call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of lonely fells is my mystery, and the silver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.' Here she was most relaxed and painted many of her most harmonious paintings, including Cumberland Hills, where she has reversed the usual dominance of the yellow and the pink magenta of the wild orchids as the key colour.
After the war ended Winifred began her painting trips again, making a number of trips to the west coast of Ireland – where she painted Croagh Patrick – as well as France and the Hebrides. Early in her career, Winifred had worked out a painting method where she planned the composition in her mind's eye before putting brush to canvas, a process that could be painstaking. The actual painting was generally completed quickly, often in one sitting with a few finishing touches made the following morning to pull the ideas through to completion. And it is this quickness in execution that gives her work its freshness and immediacy.
During the 1960s, Winifred made numerous and often lengthy painting trips to Greece travelling extensively throughout the country until the Colonels' military dictatorship came to power in 1967. She particularly enjoyed Mycenae, with its Bronze Age ruins surrounded by mountains as well as the wild mountain flowers, and made friends with the Dassis family who owned the Belle Hélène where she stayed. Mount Zara, painted at Mycenae, with the fiery sun rising behind the mountain and the deep red of the amaryllis, is suggestive of the heat that she so much enjoyed. For her, sunlight could not be 'expressed without a hint of the mystery of violet', for violet is the colour of highest tension.
Unable to travel to Greece because of the Colonels, Winifred made two trips to North Africa visiting Tunisia and Morocco. Her painting of a view out of a window in Chefchaouen, Morocco shows her interest in prismatic colours that was to dominate the last period of her life. Indeed, in her late period of prismatic paintings, she made many of her best-loved works.
At its best, Winifred's creativity has a visionary quality that is left for the viewer to decipher themselves. This is particularly evident in Glimpse Upon Waking, where through partly drawn curtains shines a gentle and glowing dawn. Painted when Winifred was in her late 80s, like so many of her paintings the composition and structure are deceptively simple, but it is the harmony of the colour, in particular, the radiance of the dawn, that gives the picture its captivating power, and as such encapsulates Winifred's belief that 'the joy of colour is inborn with each of us'.
Jovan Nicholson, art historian, curator and grandson of Winifred Nicholson