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Masterpiece Ben Nicholson work acquired for Wakefield's art collection.

22 Sep 2021

We are delighted to announce the acquisition of 1935, Quai d’Auteuil, one of the most important white reliefs by the pioneering British artist Ben Nicholson (1894-1982).

The work has been on long loan to the gallery since February 2015 and its acquisition has been made possible through a hybrid of the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, together with a £1.5million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £500,000 from the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), as well as donations from other trusts, foundations and generous individuals including the Porthmeor Fund, The Hepworth Estate, Henry Moore Foundation,  Richard Schlagman and The Hepworth Wakefield’s Collection Circle.

Quai d’Auteuil is a superlative example of a genre of carved painting unique to Nicholson. It is considered to be of immense importance to the development of British Modernism, as well as being one of Nicholson’s most important contributions to international modernism. The title refers to the Parisian street where the work was made while Nicholson was visiting his children and first wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson at 48 Quai d’Auteuil.

Nicholson’s soon-to-be second wife, Barbara Hepworth, encouraged his move into three-dimensional relief. When in Paris, Nicholson met with many of his continental peers including Hans Arp, Constantin Brâncusi, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. Travelling between his family in Paris and Barbara Hepworth in London, Nicholson became the fulcrum for disseminating information about the development of modernism between the two cities.

Ben Nicholson, 1935 (white relief Quai d’Auteuil) © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.

Quai d’Auteuil was considered pre-eminent by its erstwhile owner, Winifred Nicholson as well as by the artist himself. Nicholson considered his white reliefs as compositions of purity and simplicity, describing Quai d’Auteuil as having ‘a marvellous peacefulness, exciting landscape of foothills, and mountains, and still sunlight and snow’. In a letter from Winifred to Ben Nicholson she wrote: ‘I am so glad you are able to repair the white relief which as you say is among the very best that you have done and has something exalted that I have not found in others.’ (July 1953). This white relief represents a key moment in British Modernism and the radical approach that the artist was taking towards non-representational abstraction at the time. It places Nicholson at the forefront of international prominence during the 1930s – not only as a chief exponent of abstract art in Britain but also a significant figure within the European avant-garde.

Simon Wallis, Director of The Hepworth Wakefield said: ‘We are so grateful to the individuals, trusts and foundations and particularly to the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund for recognising the importance of this work and making this acquisition possible at a time when there were so many competing demands for funds. The addition of this masterpiece to our collection will ensure the work is enjoyed by a broad and diverse audience and enables us to tell the story of the development of abstract art in Britain with a work that matches the quality and importance of those we already hold by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, and others. It is wonderful to have such positive news to share in our 10th-anniversary year and as we come out of a very challenging 18 months in the museum and gallery sector.’

1935 Quai d’Auteuil is now on display in our 10th-anniversary exhibition, Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, which runs until 27 February 2022.

Dr Simon Thurley CBE, Chair, The National Heritage Memorial Fund said:

‘We are delighted to have supported the acquisition of Ben Nicholson’s Quai d’Auteuil with a grant of £1.5m. It is a hugely significant piece created during Nicholson’s relationship with Barbara Hepworth demonstrating how the artists shaped the formation of each other’s work. It is highly appropriate that Quai d’Auteuil now forms part of the permanent collection at The Hepworth Wakefield. It joins the many hundreds of important and much-loved treasures that can be seen and enjoyed across the UK thanks to the National Heritage Memorial Fund.’

Jenny Waldman, Director of Art Fund said:

‘Ben Nicholson’s  Quai d’Auteuil  is an outstanding example of British modernism. Art Fund is delighted to support the acquisition by The Hepworth Wakefield of this vital part of our country’s heritage. We know it will fascinate and inspire audiences, scholars and art lovers alike for generations to come.’

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said:

‘I am delighted that Ben Nicholson’s wonderful Quai d’Auteuil will now be able to be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone who visits The Hepworth Wakefield. The government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme has helped make this happen by transferring the piece into public ownership. I know it will be an invaluable addition to the great collection housed in this West Yorkshire institution.’

Edward Harley OBE, Chairman, Acceptance in Lieu Panel said:

‘I am delighted that the white relief, 1935, Quai d’Auteuil by Ben Nicholson has been acquired by The Hepworth Wakefield through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, in a hybrid agreement with funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. This work is named for 48 Quai d’Auteuil where Nicholson’s wife Winifred was living at the time. I hope that this example will encourage others to use the scheme and continue to support our national collections.’

Who was Ben Nicholson?

Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, and was the son of the artists William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. He studied at the Slade School of Art, 1910-11. He married the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920. Over the next three years they spent winters in Lugano, Switzerland, then divided their time between London and Cumberland. In 1931, Nicholson met Barbara Hepworth whom he married in 1938 having divorced Winifred. Throughout the 1930s Nicholson played an important role in the development of abstract art in the UK and, together with Hepworth, was part of a group of painters, sculptors and architects who championed the modernist movement in England. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of WWII, Nicholson moved to Cornwall with Hepworth and their young triplets, where they remained for the next 20 years. Hepworth and Nicholson divorced in 1951.

In 1952 Nicholson won first prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh and went on to win numerous international awards for painting, including the first Guggenheim International painting prize in 1956, and the international prize for painting at Bienal de São Paulo in 1957. In 1954, together with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Nicholson represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. He received the Order of Merit in 1968.

In 1958, Nicholson and his third wife, the photographer Felicitas Vogler, left Cornwall and moved to Switzerland. Nicholson returned to England in 1971, moving into a house in Hampstead, London in 1974, not far from where he lived with Hepworth in the 1930s. Here he remained until his death in 1982.

In addition to 1935, Quai d’Auteil, there are three works by Ben Nicholson in Wakefield’s collection, illustrating different facets of Nicholson’s career: 1933 (Piquet), a work in oil on board that is an example of Nicholson’s early representative style, demonstrating the importance of cubism to the development of his ideas; an edition of Nicholson’s Moonlight (1948) which is a silk scarf that he designed for Ascher; and a lithographic print he made for the Penwith Portfolio in 1973.

Ben Nicholson, 1933 (Piquet), Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946. © Angela Verren Taunt. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021

The white reliefs

1935, Quai d’Auteuil by Ben Nicholson is one of his largest white reliefs, measuring 109 x 118 cms. It is one of only five white reliefs in UK public collections. Quai d’Auteuil, composed of multiple circles in different planes, is carved from board and painted in oil paint. Nicholson used a combination of chisels and razor blades for scraping the board, which led to surfaces varying between mottled and smooth. This white relief has both textures.

The first Nicholson reliefs, made in the early 1930s, were coloured in muted earth tones. By February 1934 Nicholson began to make white versions, in which the notion of perceiving planes at different depths reached a more sophisticated level. Painter Paul Nash described the white reliefs as ‘the discovery of a new world.’