© Angela Verren Taunt 2015. All rights reserved, DACS


Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982)


585 x 465 MM
Accession number


Ben Nicholson’s painting of a pretty, quiet harbour bay in weathered hues of gold, magnolia and grey, is disrupted by large abstract shapes that seem to float and hover in the plane. The bay is the tiny harbour of Mousehole, pronounced ‘Mowzel’, which lies on the coast of Cornwall; and those flat shapes included on the right-hand side of the painting form elements of a still life. This part of the picture is very similar to 1945 (still life) (1945),(1) a sombre grouping of cups with elegant looping handles, a bottle and perhaps some plates, which recalls the Cubist arrangement of perspectives in the style of Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso. Whilst marrying together two of Nicholson’s preferred genres of painting – still life and landscape – additionally, one can see in this painting echoes of Nicholson’s staunchly Modernist abstractions, such as the spartan, monochrome ‘White Reliefs’ of squares and circles that were begun in the 1930s.

What binds the incongruous elements in this painting together are the colours and the textures of the paint. There is, unsurpris¬ingly, a marked contrast in the use of colour and light between Nicholson’s paintings in Cornwall, where he moved with his wife, Barbara Hepworth, at the start of World War II, and those painted in Cumberland in the north of England in the 1920s, which are dark, bright and rich. 11 November 1947 (Mousehole) typifies the palette for which Nicholson’s landscapes became best known: pale, golden and ochre hues. These were undoubtedly affected by the light qualities of the glinting Cornish sea and salt-blown countryside, and in this painting the colours of the still life appear borrowed from the landscape. Putty-coloured elements from the rocks and pavements around the har¬bour are seen on part of the bottle and several of the square, interlock¬ing planes, along with the tones of chalky rocky white from the cliffs, and other browns and golden sand colours from the earth. The sea, a tone of whitish duck-egg blue, almost touching on amethyst in places, reappears right at the centre of the still life’s composition.

The textures, too, are significant, binding each of the separate elements together. There are several areas of thin paint which appear to have been roughly scrubbed away, so that the ruddy canvas shows through. Whilst an emphasis on the handmade and craft tradition may certainly have been influenced by Nicholson’s relationship with naïve painter Alfred Wallis, who lived nearby, this painting is a perfect example of what Chris Stephens has termed Nicholson’s ‘domestication’ of the English landscape. Nicholson compared his manner of working with the memory of his mother scrubbing the kitchen table, revealing his determination ‘to show that the making of art was ordinary and domestic, as essential as housework’.(2) Bringing together the objects of the home, and integrating them with the landscape, Nicholson human¬ises the sublime with small boats as part of an intimate, huddled scaling that wraps itself around the viewer.

Since 1940, with 1940 (St Ives, version 2),(3) Nicholson had been creating a series of works in which still life paintings were intertwined with landscapes, generally using the device of a group of objects placed near a window. In Mousehole, one might not, at first glance, recognise the overlapping foreground shapes as still life objects – it simply looks as though elements of the landscape have come forth and arranged themselves into a new vortex of physical forms, or abstract impressions. This notion might be illuminated by Nicholson’s comment some years later: ‘All the “still lifes” are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me.’(4)


1. Tate Collection, London.
2. Chris Stephens, introduction to A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England, exh. cat. (London: Tate, 2008), 12.
3. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
4. Letter from Nicholson to Patrick Heron (9 February 1954), quoted in Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1993), 86.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009