Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1928 (Pill Creek) 50.8 x 60.9 cm. (20 x 24 in.)

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Lot 6AR
Ben Nicholson O.M.
(British, 1894-1982)
1928 (Pill Creek) 50.8 x 60.9 cm. (20 x 24 in.)

Sold for £ 722,500 (US$ 963,386) inc. premium
Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982)
1928 (Pill Creek)
gesso, oil and pencil on canvas
50.8 x 60.9 cm. (20 x 24 in.)


  • Provenance
    The Artist, from whom acquired by
    C.S. Reddihough (prior to 1948)

    Probably London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, 9th Exhibition of the Seven and Five Society, 7-28 March 1929, (as Feock)
    Probably London, Lefevre Gallery, New Paintings by Ben Nicholson with a forward by C.S. Reddihough, March 1930, (as Feock)
    Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Ben Nicholson, Winter 1954-55,
    Paris, Musée National D'Art Moderne, Ben Nicholson, 21 January-20 February 1955,; this exhibition travelled to Brussels, Palais Des Beaux-Arts, 3-27 March and Zurich, Kunsthaus, 20 April-22 May
    London, The Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, A Retrospective Exhibition, June-July 1955,, pl.9 (ill.b&w)
    Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Ben Nicholson, 17 April-17 May 1959, (ill.b&w); this exhibition travelled to Mannheim, Stadtische Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Kunstverein and Essen, Museum Folkwang
    London, The Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, 19 June-27 July 1969, (ill.b&w)
    New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Ben Nicholson, Fifty Years of His Art, 21 October-26 November 1978, (ill.b&w); this exhibition travelled to Washington D.C., Hishorn Museum and Garden, 21 December 1978-18 February 1979, and New York, The Brooklyn Museum, 17 March-13 May 1979
    Madrid, Fundación Juan, Ben Nicholson, 6 February-29 March 1987, organised by The British Council, (col.ill.); this exhibition travelled throughout Spain and Portugal
    Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Ben Nicholson, 14 November 1992-24 January 1993,
    London, The Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, 13 October 1993-9 January 1994,; this exhibition travelled to St Etienne, Musée d'Art Moderne, 10 February-25 April 1994
    Valencia, IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez, Ben Nicholson, 25 April-7 July 2002, (col.ill.)
    Hayama, The Museum of Modern Art, Ben Nicholson, 7 February–28 March 2004, (col.ill.); this exhibition travelled to Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 9 April–23 May and Tokyo, Station Gallery, 29 May-25 July
    Kendal, Abbot Hall, A Continuous Line, Ben Nicholson in England, 7 July-20 September 2008,; this exhibition travelled to Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion, 11 October 2008-4 January 2009 and St. Ives, Tate Gallery, 24 January-4 May
    Leeds, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, Art and Life 1920-1931, 18 October 2013-12 January 2014, unnumbered; this exhibition travelled to Cambridge, Kettle's Yard Gallery, 15 February-11 May and London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 June-21 September

    John Summerson, Ben Nicholson, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1948, pl.6 (ill.b&w)
    Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, Volume 1, Lund Humphries, London, 1948, pl.32 (ill.b&w)
    Herbert Read, Views on Ben Nicholson, British Council Press, London, 1955, pl.5 (ill.b&w)
    Aujoud'hui, 'Art et Architecture, No.1', January-February 1955, p.4 (ill.b&w)
    John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Sickert-Moore, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1957, p.508
    Ronald Alley, Ben Nicholson, Beaverbrook Newspapers Limited, London, 1962, unnumbered (ill.b&w.)
    David Baxandall, Ben Nicholson, Methuen, London, 1962, p.31, pl.3 (ill.b&w)
    Charles Harrison, Ben Nicholson, The Tate Gallery, London, 1969, p.16, Ben Nicholson-The Years of Experiment, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 1983, p.16, (ill.b&w)
    Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1991, pl.25 (col.ill.)
    Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, The Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p.204 (ill.b&w and col.ill. p.14)
    Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, p.50, pl.45 (col.ill.)
    Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 2000, p.32-34 (col.ill. pl.28)
    Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson, John Murray, London, 2000, p.63
    Peter Khoroche, Ben Nicholson; Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2002, p.26 (col.ill.)
    Virginia Button, Ben Nicholson, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p.73 (col.ill. pl.69)
    Tom Cross, Painting in the Warmth of the Sun, St Ives Artists 1939-1975, Halsgrove, Somerset, 2008, p.22, pl.17 (col.ill.)
    Chris Stephens, A Continuous Line, Ben Nicholson in England, Tate Publishing, London, 2008, p.32 (col.ill.)
    Jovan Nicholson, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, Art and Life 1920-1931, Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2013, p.116 (col.ill. p.117)

    1928 (Pill Creek – Cornwall) is an outstanding and highly important example of Nicholson's work dating from the late 1920s. This is illustrated by the picture's comprehensive exhibition history (listed above) and the fact it features in much of the literature written about the artist (also listed above). It must surely rank as among the finest paintings by Nicholson from this formative first decade of his career, left in private hands. Crucially, added to this, is the painting's distinguished provenance; 1928 (Pill Creek – Cornwall) has resided in the C.S. Reddihough Collection since it was purchased directly from Ben by Cyril Reddihough (date unknown, but since at least 1948 as it is listed as belonging to C.S. Reddihough in Penguin's 1948 book, Ben Nicholson by John Summerson). The importance of Cyril Reddihough's support for Nicholson, in the early years especially, cannot be underestimated. The pair first met in 1926. Cyril was 'a shy twenty-four-year-old solicitor from Ilkley who admired the paintings of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse – much to the amazement of his friends. Hearing from his golfing partner that some "rather odd" works were being produced by a young artist over at Banks Head, he called on Ben and Winifred, and found himself "completely flattened" by the "poetic quality" of what he saw. It was his first glimpse of contemporary British painting.' (Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson, the Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, John Murray, London, 2000, p.63). It was not long after their initial meeting that Cyril had saved enough money to purchase his own Ben Nicholson. This led to a series of letters between the two, exchanging thoughts on art, which in turn blossomed into a friendship that would last four decades. Cyril wrote the catalogue introduction for Ben's 1930 one-man Lefevre Gallery exhibition which received a favourable review in The Times. Indeed, this unstinting support by Cyril was crucial to Nicholson's early career. The artist himself acknowledged of his early patrons (of which Cyril is named) 'The understanding they gave was invaluable and the work which they bought kept us going' (Ben Nicholson, 30 November 1966, extract from an unpublished article, Tate archive London).

    In the August of 1928, the Nicholsons (Ben and first wife Winifred) left their Banks Head home in Cumbria and travelled to Feock in Cornwall where they stayed until October, on the Carrick Roads with fellow artist Christopher Wood and friends from the Hampstead Tennis Club, Marcus and Irene Brumwell. The subject of the present picture is Pill Creek, a tributary of the Truro River flanked by pine woodland on this deepwater channel. In 'Kit: An Unpublished Memoir' about Christopher Wood (Tate Gallery Archive), Winifred Nicholson describes the area as 'a sleeping beauty's countryside of southern foliage, sheltered creeks and wide expanse of placid water'. This was a particularly significant time for both Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood which included the now legendary discovery in August of the primitive fisherman-cum-painter Alfred Wallis, on a day trip to St. Ives. 1928 (Pill Creek – Cornwall), can be viewed as a manifestation of the intense creativity these three artists were engaged in at the time.

    The picture is fully realised and intricately worked, unlike its companion piece of the same size, 1928 (Pill Creek, moonlight) (Private Collection) which appears to be unfinished with a thin application of paint, revealing much of the bare canvas. In the present work the canvas has been prepared with a white gesso ground over which sweeping brown brush strokes describe the form of the landscape. The subtle colouring of the violet-blue sky upper right would indicate a night time scene. The sailing boat, woodland and pockets of foreground have been heavily drawn in with pencil, striking in its rigorous and extensive working. This technique was employed by Nicholson during the early 1920s, but with more constraint; 1921-23 (Cortivallo, Lugano) in the collection of Tate Gallery, London is a good example. The layers of paint and pencil have then been scratched into and rubbed down in various sections to reveal the gesso ground, most effective in the swirling forms in the upper left foliage and to silhouette the grey sail against white, upper right. When considering this picture it is the surface complexity and texture, along with the attention to detail in the draughtsmanship, which really stand out in comparison to others of the same period. For example, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St Ives) (Private Collection) and 1929 (Kingwater Valley, Cumberland) (Private Collection) whilst both fine works, demonstrate how unresolved and thinly applied the paint can be on paintings by Nicholson from this period.

    Over the decades so much has been written about this early masterpiece. Arguably the most insightful and detailed commentary comes from David Baxandall in his 1962 pocket-sized booklet published by Methuen:

    'But in 1928 came the first paintings to show undoubted authority. In these he turned again to landscape, sometimes painting together with his friend Christopher Wood. There were not many pictures that year, but amongst them seem to me to be his first unquestionable masterpieces. One of these is Pill Creek and I think it is worth trying to identify the qualities that give this painting its power, for they are qualities we shall find recurring, deepened and intensified, throughout his career' (David Baxandall, Ben Nicholson, London, Methuen, 1962, pages not numbered). Baxandall then provides and enlightening critique of the present work before commenting on the significance of its preparation and compositional cleverness, 'The surface quality of the picture is fascinating. At this time Nicholson took great trouble with the preparation of his canvases, enlivening their even texture with swirls of white ground, sometimes even enriching the texture with areas of powdered marble. I remember, towards the end of the 1920s, seeing in house in Cumberland a group of canvases prepared in this way, each already having its own individuality, waiting for him to choose the one best suited for the pictorial idea he had in mind. To make a painting has always been for him, at least in part, to animate a thing to create new life by marrying his idea to a physical object – a piece of wood or a prepared canvas. Something of this kind has happened in Pill Creek. The final design of the picture includes a counterpoint between the exhilarating swirls the canvas received at an early stage, apparently with a four inch brush, and the shapes that he paints [draws] on top of these. This counterpoint gives added animation to a great deal of the picture's surface, from the right foreground, where the dark shapes ripple across the up-swinging ground-swell underlying them, to the mysterious depths of the little wood. An additional use is made of the swirl that sweeps across the foot of the tree-trunks to model the concave land-surface here. The elements of surface beauty, in fact, though they appeal in their own right, are used constructively as well, and this is a quality, together with the thing-ness of the picture, that has persisted throughout Nicholson's steadily unfolding development.' (Op.Cit.)

    Not long after 1928 (Pill Creek - Cornwall) was painted, during the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson left his endearing 'naïve' style behind and embarked on a radical new phase of his career which embraced complete abstraction. This wonderful picture is probably the zenith of his 1920s production and an exciting prospect for any serious Nicholson collector.
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