Walton Wood Cottage by Ben Nicholson

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October half-term. A long-planned visit to Edinburgh, staying in the Community Hall of Well Court, part of Edinburgh World Heritage Dean Court. These apartments were built in 1886 as a model housing development for artisans and worker families employed by the many mills that dipped their wheels in the Water of Leith.

The Water of Leith Walkway is a delight in Autumn. Its 12 miles from Balerno to Leith Harbour cuts through North Edinburgh creating a green-way of statues, weirs, architecture and opportunities to nose through windows.

Walton Wood Cottage

We took off East one morning, along the Leith to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and discovered a reminder of Cumbria, a painting by Ben Nicholson entitled Walton Wood Cottage No.1 (1928)

The blurb by the painting told us:

This painting is the first of two works by Ben Nicholson showing a cottage at Walton Wood near Bankshead in Cumbria. Even in this, an early work, Nicholson’s interest in space, clarity and natural materials is evident. The underlying green colour seems to have been wiped on with a sponge or rag rather than applied with a brush, and suggests the circulation of cool air. The use of flat blocks of colour to structure the surface of the picture shows the influence of Cubism. Nicholson has adopted a deliberately naïve approach but there are also parallels with the simple compositions favoured by his artist father, William.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Space and clarity were two abiding concepts this October, as we made our way around a sparse Edinburgh, its attractions operating on full Covid measures. The Royal Yacht Britannia, Edinburgh Castle and Mary Queen’s Close all operating on 30% less numbers, as was the National Gallery of Modern Art where Ben Nicholson’s Walton Wood Cottage No.1 hung.

Nicholson was born in Buckingham-shire on 10 Apr 1894 into a firmly established artistic family. By the time of his death in London on 6 Feb. 1982, he had become one of Great Britain’s most distinguished pioneers of abstract art.

He married Winifred Roberts in 1920. Winifred’s family had lived in Cumberland for generations and in 1924, they bought Banks Head Farm on Hadrian’s Wall.

Banks Head – Cumbrian Landscape (1928) by Ben Nicholson © Angela Verren Taunt
Banks Head – Cumbrian Landscape (1928) by Ben Nicholson © Angela Verren Taunt

Banks Head – Cumbrian Landscape (1928) was painted in the spring of that year. It shows a site close to Ben and Winifred’s farm at Banks Head, which they had bought four years earlier. The exact location, however, has never been positively identified.

“In the early days at Banks Head, Ben and Winifred would carry their paints, canvases and drawing materials to a chosen painting site. As these were heavy, the distances were limited, so it was mostly the nearby farms which they painted.”

Jake Nicholson (Son)

The painting is one of the most remarkable examples of Ben Nicholson’s exploration of a consciously ‘naïve’ style. In the early years of his career Nicholson sought to move beyond the example of his father William, a glossy Edwardian still life and portrait painter. He wrote of wanting to “bust up all the sophistication around me” and sought inspiration in the work of artists as diverse as Cézanne and the Cubists.

Starry Eyed (1927) Ben and Jake by Winifred Nicholson
Starry Eyed (1927) Ben and Jake by Winifred Nicholson

One of the key moments in Nicholson’s artistic development was the encounter, during the summer of 1928, with Alfred Wallis, a 73-year-old Cornish fisherman who a few years earlier had taken up painting as a hobby. Nicholson found in Wallis’s art an example of the freedom of technique and vision and a disregard of the rigid rules of academic painting that he himself was longing for.

Walton Wood Cottage was one of a number of cottages owned by Winifred’s Grandfather, The Earl of Carlisle. Walton Wood lay east of Bank Head Farm, on the Roman Wall north of Lanercost Priory.

“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.”

Winifred Nicholson

At the time of the painting, Walton Wood Cottage was rented by Ben’s sister Nancy and her husband, the American poet Robert Graves. They were living through difficult times. Graves developing a long-term relationship with the poet Laura Riding leaving Nancy to raise their four children across a succession of locations, including Walton Wood Cottage.

Links: https://www.theguardian.com/books/robert-graves

Winifred Nicholson website

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