“Cyclamen and Primula”, Winifred Nicholson, c.1923, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The artists Winfred Roberts and Ben Nicholson were married in London in 1920. This picture dates from the first few winters which were spent painting in Switzerland. Ben had bought her some lily of the valley wrapped in tissue paper. This led to about six paintings of flowers wrapped in tissue paper which Winifred described in a letter as “sunlight in white paper”. In each, the flowers are placed on a window sill looking out over a landscape. Winfred later wrote: “the picture painted itself on that window sill”. In 1969 Winifred wrote, “flowers mean different things to different people…. to some they are button holes for their conceit -to botanists they are species and tabulated categories -to bees of course they are honey- to me they are the secret of the cosmos.” The cyclamen on the left are violet . Years later, she would write that the colour violet, “calls to a colour beyond itself on the scale, a colour that our eyes cannot see, although we know that it is there by the power of ultraviolet rays.” She treats colour as a composer does notes on the scale. In her “Liberation of Colour” (1944) she wrote that “Each colour is unique, but no colour can stand alone.” Each colour has its own note. Colours sing to each other. In this picture, she builds her composition within a subtle harmony of colour, so that the eye moves between the flower itself and the paper wrapping and the snow covered mountains behind. They toured Italy on their honeymoon, but both wrote that most of the Old Masters they saw were “overrated”. But Ben did collect pictures of some of them in three scrap books. Among these were Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino, wherein both Duke and Duchess are painted on separate panels but in front of a single continuous landscape. The relationship between the figures in the foreground and landscape behind are explored by means of continuity in colour and form, so while creating a certain amount of visual ambiguity, he nonetheless achieves a sense of depth, position and harmony. It is the relationship between the flowers on the sill and the distant mountain behind which conveys not just the sheer beauty of sunlight, but also its transience. Flowers fade and snow melts. Their marriage did not last. Ben left her in the autumn of 1931 and shortly afterwards moved in with the artist Barbara Hepworth. In the space between the two pieces of of tissue, there is an evocation of a journey which has begun but with a destination as yet uncertain. Did the artist have some sense of this in the early years of her marriage? It was today’s gospel, with its talk of a light and the two sets of brothers beginning their journeys that put me in mind of this painting and, in particular, the way the shadows on the mountain seem to suggest a road over the horizon. One of the greatest supporters of the Nicholsons and their generation of artists was Jim Ede, who, in order to give his collection a permanent home, founded Kettle’s Yard. He wrote that he had seen this picture reproduced and had always wanted it. Years later a Cambridge dealer recognised it despite layers of dust. He sold it to Jim Ede, for whatever he could afford. When the painting was cleaned, he wrote of it : “now is this delight of sunlight shadows and insubstantial substance.”
I heard the poem on the radio last Sunday called “What if this road” which is on the same theme. DM
What if this road by Sheenagh Pugh
What if this road, that has held no surprises
these many years, decided not to go
home after all; what if it could turn
left or right with no more ado
than a kite-tail? What if its tarry skin
were like a long, supple bolt of cloth,
that is shaken and rolled out, and takes
a new shape from the contours beneath?
And if it chose to lay itself down
in a new way; around a blind corner,
across hills you must climb without knowing
what’s on the other side; who would not hanker
to be going, at all risks? Who wants to know
a story’s end, or where a road will go?
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