Ben Nicholson’s northern period serves up a Middlesbrough treat

The Northerner’s art supremo, Alan Sykes, inspects mima’s latest exhibition with a learned Cumbrian eye


Ben Nicholson one of the pioneers of modernist painting in the UK, is generally associated with London and the St Ives School which he and his friend Kit Wood effectively founded.

However, Nicholson spent a significant part of his early development living with his first wife Winifred Nicholson at a family farm of her’s right on Hadrian’s Wall, not far from Carlisle, where they were visited by many other artists from their circle, including Paul Nash, Ivon Hitchens and Jean Hugo.

“Birch Craig, summer”, of around 1930, shows a typical whitewashed Cumberland farmstead with trees and the naïf figure of a red horse in a field in the middle ground, while in the distance to the south the squat grandeur of Cold Fell rises hazily into the clouds. The landscape is almost identical to what you can see there today, although the A69 in front of where Nicholson was standing is probably a bit noisier now than then. Outwardly a traditional landscape painting, the blocks of colour of the fields, hill and sky are applied in a way that is in some ways reminiscent of the artist’s more overtly cubist works.

“Christmas 1940” is one of the more important abstracts here. A 6 inch rectangular work, framed (rather badly) by Nicholson himself, it is a series of grey, black and white squares and rectangles with a central block of pure red, clearly showing the influence of his friend and briefly Hampstead neighbour Mondrian, who left London for New York a few months earlier. It is inscribed “to Jackie with love Christmas 1940 from Ben”, Jackie being his and Winifred’s eldest son – history does not relate how delighted the 13 year old was with his abstract Christmas present. Mondrian refused to visit Winifred in Cumberland on the grounds that “it is too green”.

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