This is a view of the terraced landscapes at Castagnola, Lugano, Switzerland, close to Lake Como. Winifred was entranced by the character of the landscape and wrote to a friend and fellow Byam Shaw student Edith Jenkinson: ‘The country is good to paint, austere mountains and patterned vineyards, terraced down the hillside with knobbly willow trees and funny fig trees and springing fruit trees’. On the verso is an abstract painting typical of the early 1930s.
The precise date of this early painting is not confirmed. It has been dated to the early 1920s (see Tate exhibition catalogue, 1987) and thought to have been painted at Castagnola, where the newly married Mr and Mrs Ben Nicholson had spent their honeymoon and later owned a house. However, Jovan Nicholson, Winifred’s grandson and the author of a catalogue raisonné of her work, believes Spring Landscape was most likely painted in the 1930s because of the abstract composition on the reverse. Nicholson often turned her canvases over to paint on the other side and, as she only began making abstracts around 1934, he feels that Spring Landscape must date from this year or later, when Nicholson began to make regular visits to the South of France. It is just as likely that she painted the landscape first, turned it over to make the abstract, though chose to turn back to the original work.
In its composition, its deliberate naivety and wonderfully restrained palette, accented with pools and stripes of emerald green, this painting bears all the hallmarks of the paintings Winifred and Ben made in the years of their marriage. At this time, along with Christopher Wood, they embarked on a journey to create a vernacular English modernism, taking their cues from all manner of sources: Cubism, folk art, Matisse, the art of children. Winifred has always suffered from being seen as a footnote in Ben’s life and yet, at the early stages of their careers, hers was an equal part in these attempts to be thoroughly modern. From the house at Bankshead, for which Winifred bought a Mondrian painting, through to their joint search for an un-tutored, ‘primitive’ language that could express modern ideas of informality and directness. Here, in Spring Landscape, we see Nicholson in full control of a visual language that is her own, nothing to do with the pure abstraction of Ben, the ‘intentional style’ that, by the 1930s, held him (by then separated from Winifred) in its thrall. This was a language that was to sustain Winifred for the rest of her career.
Austin Desmond Fine Art, London; Reuters Collection, London; acquired directly from the above by the family of a previous owner, 1986; Bonhams London, 12th March 2008, lot 34; Sotheby's, London, 18th November 2014, lot 15; Private Collection, London
London, Austin Desmond Fine Art, 'Aspects of Modern British Art 1920 - 1960', 1984, cat. no.42, illustrated.; London, Tate, 'Winifred Nicholson', 3 June - 2 August 1987, cat. no.3. where dated 1922-23, label attached verso.