We first encountered the work of Ben Nicholson as students. In the early sixties his white reliefs seemed the essence of cool, along with Terence Conran furniture and the designs of Jensen. Some years later we came to know Angela and Derek Taunt in Cambridge, and were privileged to see their collection of Nicholson’s smaller works. There were larger works and paintings by his first wife, Winifred Nicholson, at Kettle’s Yard.
On a small scale Kettle’s Yard resembles Pallant House in Chichester. The smallness is the conversion of three run-down cottages into a home for Helen and Jim Ede, who had the first gallery added as a space for occasional art exhibitions with a permanent collection in their house. They donated the whole complex to Cambridge University when they moved to Edinburgh. Pallant House, a fine Georgian building, also has a permanent collection, including Nicholson and others featured at Kettle Yard, and holds temporary exhibitions.
“From the Studio” was one such, containing several works once owned by the Taunts and acknowledging Angela’s copyright in all Nicholson’s work. It was a delight to see so many gathered in a large, airy space, suggesting that a permanent Nicholson gallery should be established.
Not only the cool reliefs but also more colourful and playful works of several periods were shown. Some exhibited the influence Nicholson and his friend Christopher Wood found in the St Ives primitive painter, Alfred Wallis. (Both Wood and Wallis are to be found at Kettle’s Yard.)
As in the wonderful Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Wakefield the Nicholson includes photographs of the studio and examples of work seen in those images. Hepworth also was married to Nicholson until the 1960s. It was after their divorce that Nicholson was offered a studio at Great Shelford, just outside Cambridge, and came to know Angela and Derek. He encouraged Angela’s painting although it was perhaps influenced more by Winifred than Ben. They did share a delight in the colours of Italian landscape, however, and his later paintings had a softer, warmer tone than the reliefs.
The Pallant House exhibition had a full range of his working styles, and was enhanced by subsidiary displays of miniature works reflecting an early commission responded to by many British artists of the modernist era. Among contemporary reflections of that dolls’ house commission are works by Rachel Whiteread and her contemporaries. There was also a (presumably permanent) display of ceramic works in a studio that overlooks the garden at Pallant House. This too is an echo of Kettle’s Yard, which has claims to precedence in showing ceramic of all ages, both domestic and so-called art.
Although the Nicholson exhibition closed some weeks ago the permanent exhibition at Pallant House is well worth visiting. Among works on display in elegant surroundings are a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and, in utter contrast to Nicholson, a painting by Howard Hodgkin.