Winifred Nicholson is the focus for a Kettle's Yard exploration of colour in watercolour

By Richard Moss | 19 September 2012
a photo of a room interior with dining table, armchair, wooden floor and paintings hung on white walls
Kettle's Yard house extension. Photo: Paul Allit© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
Exhibition Preview: Artist in Focus: Winifred Nicholson, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, September 29 — December 21 2012

The subtle watercolours of Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) may on first sight seem too delicate to be considered classics of a form that British artists have, over the centuries, made their own.

But amid her subtle palette of deft washes lies a sensitive and informed approach to the painting of landscapes, people, flowers and moments that mark her out as a master of colour and light.

Nicholson, who once said “a picture can be a lamp in one’s home, not merely a window”, was a famously quick worker who often finished her paintings in a single sitting. It is perhaps this approach that also gives them their sense of movement and life.

But she was also fascinated by colour and understood rainbow and spectrum colours more than most.

Her 1937 book, Unknown Colour, outlined her theories on the visible colour spectrum and from 1975 until her death in 1981 she experimented with prisms to try and find a new colour somewhere between violet and red.

Equally at home using this knowledge to paint portraits of family and friends or the landscapes of Scotland, Greece or her latter day home in Cumberland, she is today best known for her paintings of flowers, which she characteristically described as “sparks of light, built of and thrown out into the air as rainbows are thrown, in an arc.”

Nicholson evidently talked a good game, but as these paintings in the latest In Focus series at Kettle’s Yard reveal, she also had the skill - and the pedigree.

Her grandfather was the painter (and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites) George Howard and her husband of ten years or so, between 1920 and 1931, was Ben Nicholson.

With the latter she became a member of the Seven and Five Society during the 1930s when it turned on its more traditionalist members - including Edward Bawden amnd Eric Ravilious - and moved towards abstraction and the company of artists like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

The exhibition, which draws from the collection of its former occupant Jim Ede, who collected Nichoslon’s work for more than 40 years, is a good introduction to Nicholson's pallette and power.

Ede became Nicholson's firm friend and supporter and Kettle’s Yard has continued the relationship by mounting exhibitions of her work in 1972, 1987 and 2001.

This latest outing explores the friendship of the two and adds a couple of paintings loaned by Girton College, Cambridge together with archive material. The result is a fresh look at a master watercolourist who really understood the possibilities of colour.  

More pictures:

a watercolour of a boat in a bay witu rocks in the foreground
Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats (aka Seascape with Dinghy) (1926)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a watercolour of a coastal scene depicting sky, sea and beach
Winifred Nicholson Seascape (Sea and Sand) (1926)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a watercolour of a small child with curly hair seated at a table
Winifred Nicholson, Sam Graves (circa 1930)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a painting of two vases with flowers on window sill
Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula (circa 1923)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a painting of a country lane with a field and farm building to the right
Winifred Nicholson, Roman Road (Landscape with Two Houses) (1926)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a painting of a vase of flowers on a table beneath a medieval style slit window
Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils and Hyacinths in a Norman Window (circa 1950-55)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a painting of an island in the sea seen from a window
Winifred Nicholson, Flodigarry Island, Skye (1949)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
a painting with flowers in the foreground and a large expanse of blue sky
Winifred Nicholson, White Saxifrage (aka Wild Lilies, Greece) (1966)© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
  • The exhibition is accompanied by a new publication on Winifred Nicholson introduced by Kettle’s Yard curator Elizabeth Fisher. It includes more than 40 reproductions, highlights from the artist’s own writings, including correspondence with key figures such as Jim Ede, fellow collector Helen Sutherland, and the poet Kathleen Raine.
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