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Creator:
Ben Nicholson, 1894–1982, British
Title:

May 1955 (Gwithian)

Date:
1955
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Support (PTG): 41 3/4 x 41 3/4 inches (106 x 106 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
© Estate of the Artist
Accession Number:
B1985.19.2
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
abstract art | drinking glasses | food | geometric abstraction | goblet | landscape | Neolithic | pedestal | sculpture | still life | time | transparent | wine | wine glass
Associated Places:
Cornwall | England | Saint Ives | United Kingdom
Access:
On view
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:5057
Export:
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During Ben Nicholson’s second decade at St. Ives, in the later 1940s and 1950s, he produced a group of still-life paintings that rank among his most important works. This particularly fine example was painted in 1955 and develops concerns he had been engaging with since the early 1930s: fusing abstract sculptural or architectonic qualities with a commitment to representation, especially the still-life tradition. Gwithian is a village, a few miles east of St. Ives, where some of the earliest Neolithic remains in Cornwall have been found. The title suggests not only Nicholson’s immediate sense of place in Cornwall but also a feeling for the timelessness of art.

Gallery Label for installation of YCBA collection, 2020



From 1949 to 1958, Nicholson's last years at St. Ives, he produced a group of major still-life paintings that rank among his most important works. This particularly fine example was painted in 1955 and picks up the themes he had been developing from the early 1930s: abstract sculptural or architectonic qualities fused with a resolute commitment to the materiality of the world observed. This blend of abstraction and representation is teased out by the painting's title. Gwithian is a village east of St. Ives where some of the earliest Neolithic remains in Cornwall have been found. The reference points to the sense of place and identity and a feeling for the timelessness of art.

Gallery label for Connections, Yale Center for British Art, 2011-05-26 - 2011-09-11



From 1949 to 1958, Ben Nicholson's last years at St. Ives-the picturesque fishing village and artists' colony in Cornwall-he produced a magisterial series of still-life paintings, of which May 1955 (Gwithian) is a particularly fine example. The artist claimed that he had always "been interested in the sculptural-architectural approach...But I do not look for massive form...I...like to chisel out a form...& there is an excitement for me in chiselling out flat planes." May 1955 (Gwithian) combines the sculptural-architectural with an atmospheric quality, as though the still life were bathed in air and light. The Gwithian of the title is a village almost due east of St. Ives, the site of some of the earliest neolithic remains in Cornwall. The reference points up both the landscape feeling of the work and the artist's sense of the timeless in art.
Ben Nicholson began to enjoy wide international fame in the early 1950s. The British Council under the direction of Lillian Browse ran a vigorous program of exhibitions of contemporary British art abroad, particularly in Europe, and between 1947 and 1960 Nicholson participated in some forty of these. Ironically, his recognition within Britain did not keep pace with his growing fame and success abroad. Although the Tate Gallery gave him a retrospective exhibition in 1955, his solo commercial showings were often unsuccessful, even at the moment when international prizes were showered upon him: the Carnegie Institute Prize in 1952; the Guggenheim International Painting Prize in 1956; and the major foreign artist's prize at the São Paulo Biennale in 1957. A residual prejudice against abstract painting in Britain, allied to a resurgence of realism in post-war British art-alternatively Neo-Romantic and effete or "kitchen sink" and heavy-handed-made Nicholson's reputation relatively embattled. He did, however, have powerful and articulate defenders in Herbert Read and his fellow painter Patrick Heron.

Why Nicholson should have continued to arouse only grudging admiration in Britain at this period is slightly puzzling. From 1949 to 1958, his last years at St. Ives, the picturesque fishing village and artists' colony in Cornwall, he produced a magisterial series of still-life paintings of which May 1955 (Gwithian) is a particularly fine example. These pictures are far more approachable than his radically abstract white reliefs of the 1930s or his austerely geometric wartime abstractions. Anybody reasonably familiar with Cubist still lifes would have no difficulty "reading" Nicholson's paintings of the early fifties.

Interestingly, Nicholson himself attributed his interest in still life to his father, the painter William Nicholson:

I owe a lot to my father-especially to his poetic idea

and to his still-life theme. That didn't come from

Cubism, as some people think, but from my father-

not only from what he did as a painter but from the

very beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and

goblets, and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects which

he collected. Having those things throughout the house was an unforgettable early experience for me.[1]

The still-life quality of May 1955 is fully realized through the interplay of transparent and opaque forms. They have a magical, almost dancing quality, as one motif overlaps and intersects with another. The unsuspected complexity of their relationships in space animates the painting.

The Nicholson still lifes of the 1950s achieved a considerable monumentality. The table in this picture has an architectural resonance, grander and more austere than the drawing and coloring of the still-life motif. The artist claimed that he had always "been interested in the sculptural-architectural approach…But I do not look for massive form…I…like to chisel out a form…& there is an excitement for me in chiselling out flat planes."[2]

This painting-one of a handsome group of Nicholsons in the Center's collection-combines the sculptural-architectural with an atmospheric quality, as though the still life were bathed in air and light. The Gwithian of the title is a village almost due east of St. Ives and was the site of some of the earliest neolithic remains in Cornwall; May 1955 echoes these ancient forms. The reference to Gwithian alludes, then, both to the landscape feeling of the work and to the artist's sense of the timeless in art. [1] Galería Jorge Mara, n.p. [2] Lewison, 75.

Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977-1986, Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1986, p. 17, cover, no. 42, N590.2 A7 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Exhibition at Durlacher Gallery, ART News, vol. 54, May 1955, p. 52, N1 +A6 Oversize (Haas)

Gwithian, ART News, vol. 60, December 1961, p. 25, N1 +A6 Oversize (Haas) Also available at Beinecke

Gwithian, Burlington Magazine, vol. 103, December 1961, p. vi, N1 B87+ Oversize Also available on JSTOR

Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, pp. 290-91, no. 2777, NJ18 N51 L95 1993 (YCBA)

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 20,21,194-95, no. 81, fig. 19, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

May 1955 ( Gwithian ), Modern Painters, vol. 20, no. 7, September 2008, p. 64, ND468 +M57 Oversize (YCBA)

May 1955 : Gwithian, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 128,no.1003, October 1986, cover, N1 B87 + (YCBA)

John McDonald, A Feast of Mellon, Sydney Morning Herald, May 9, 1998, p. 14, Film An Sy25 (SML) Also Available Online (Factiva database)

Paintings, reliefs, drawings, With an introduction by Herbert Read , Lund Humphries, London, 1955, pl. 134, J18 N51 +948R Oversize (LSF)

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA)

Duncan Robinson, Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977 - 1986, , Burlington Magazine, vol. 128, October 1986, cover, p. 17, no. 42, cover, N1 B87 128:3 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Sotheby's sale catalogue : Modern British drawings, paintings and sculpture ... the property of Mrs. Mary Keene ... : 13 December 1961, Sotheby's, Sotheby's, London, December 13, 1961, p. 49, lot no. 224, Film B12, Part IV, Reel 67 (YCBA)

St Ives abstraction, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2013, p. 22, V 2475 (YCBA)


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