Kate Nicholson, 1929 - 2019

Kate Nicholson was born in the far north of England, at Banks Head farmhouse, close to the site of a Roman Signal Station on Hadrian’s Wall, where the vast landscape and skyscape stretches for miles in patches of soft blues, greys, greens and ochres, the land articulated with the linear marks of the dry-stone walls which criss-cross the countryside.

Kate was the second child of Winifred and Ben Nicholson[1], who, through the 1920s, were working closely together, carving out new ideas as artists and exhibiting both singly and together. Ben Nicholson had already joined and become the influential chairman of the Seven and Five Society - set up in London, in 1919, as an exhibiting body for young and radical artists - by the time that his wife, Winifred, was elected a member in 1925. In the later ‘20s, amongst other members of the Seven and Five were Ivon Hitchens, David Jones and Christopher Wood, each of whom shared what might be described as a Neo-Romantic view of post-War Britain, being especially preoccupied by the post-War landscape and its poetic burden of local features and - beneath the skin - ancient bones.

Christopher Wood particularly impressed both the Nicholsons and they all painted together, in Northumberland (Northumbria), Cumberland (Cumbria) and Cornwall. Clearly, at this time, these artists were searching for remote parts of the country, away from metropolitan centres, where they could witness and be part of a more rustic society, a more ‘authentic’ people, a wilder landscape. Of course, this was a search which a number of their predecessors had pursued, two generations earlier - one only has to think of those painters gathered in Newlyn, Staithes or Cockburnspath, from the 1880s - but, in 1928, the Nicholsons’s search was rewarded with the discovery, in St. Ives, of the work of the genuine ‘primitive’, Alfred Wallis. Wallis’s marine paintings, seen with his ‘innocent eye’, exerted a powerful charm and left their mark on the paintings of both the Nicholsons.

Thus was formed the lively and questioning milieu into which the baby, Kate, was born.

In 1931, Ben Nicholson met Barbara Hepworth and later that year - shortly after the birth of Winifred’s third child - he and Hepworth set up home together. For the next few years, Winifred and her family lived variously in the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Paris, returning, regularly, to her house in Banks Head. Winifred Nicholson recalled this period as, ‘years of inspiration - fizzing like water in a soda bottle’.

By the mid-1930s, both of Kate Nicholson’s parents were exploring a language of abstract form, influenced by - amongst others - Mondrian[2], Kandinsky, Brancusi, Arp and Naum Gabo. Unlike Ben, however, Winifred - until the end of her life - worked with figurative and abstract imagery side-by-side. Abstraction seemed to influence a move towards a paring-back of form and space in her figurative pieces, a freedom and delicacy of handling in her colour and touch; figuration affected her way of looking at and painting abstract imagery, which she imbued with a deeply evocative, allusive significance.

Through the War - during the years when Kate Nicholson was growing into a young woman - the family lived in Cumbria, where Winifred was kept very busy helping her parents, managing the livestock and teaching her own and other children. Painting was fitted in around the domestic tasks and she managed to continue showing pieces in Carlisle and London. In 1949, Winifred's work was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery, London and in 'Eleven British Artists', a British Council show touring Australia. She also did some teaching at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham Court. And, in that year, Kate Nicholson enrolled at the Bath Academy, where she studied until 1954.

The Bath Academy had grown out of the Bath School of Art, established - like so many other provincial art schools - following the 1851 Great Exhibition. After the Second War, the Academy was largely based in part of Corsham Court, a fine country house set in an expansive, 'Capability' Brown landscape, which remained (and remains) in private ownership and still displayed some of the remarkable collection of paintings gathered together by Sir Paul Methuen in the mid-18th century[3]. Being a student in these handsome surroundings was often claimed to be a very special experience. It was residential and its teaching philosophy was that subject boundaries were deliberately blurred: art and design students were encouraged to mix and to share courses and ideas. The range and quality of students and tutors who worked at Corsham was, indeed, extraordinary: amongst others, Howard Hodgkin was a student from 1950-54 and returned, as a teacher in 1956; Bryan Wynter taught drawing and painting there from 1949-56 and Terry Frost joined the teaching staff in 1952. What distinguished these artists was their very ambitious determination to explore and experiment with the abstract language of colour, line and form, in order to convey the essence of a place, an emotion, a human life. What also distinguished them, of course, was the fact that they had all settled and worked in St. Ives.

From 1951, amongst Kate Nicholson's teachers was another artist from St. Ives, Peter Lanyon. He had been painting in his native Cornwall since the War, but had been deeply hurt by the artistic factionalism that had followed the emergence of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as leading members of the Penwith Society (a group which had broken away from the more conservative St. Ives Society of Artists). Hepworth had proposed that artists should be divided into three categories - figurative or abstract artists and crafts-men and -women. For Lanyon - and others such as Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost - such divisions were unacceptable and the ensuing argument was very troubling for Lanyon. His own art was bound up with the Cornish landscape, but he explored his vision through drawings, collages, constructions and studies of different aspects and details; these images were then drawn together and abstracted in bold, gestural paintings. As John Berger wrote in 1952, Lanyon depicted, 'not .. the appearance, but .. the properties of a landscape: properties only discovered when one knows a place so well that its ordinary scenic appearance has long been forgotten..'[4].

Later, Lanyon himself was to describe his work as the process of excavating 'deep and unrevealed images'. In many ways, this approach to studying - indeed, immersing oneself in, or (in Winifred Nicholson's words) 'beholding' - the visual image before one's eyes, and then extracting the essence that lies just beyond the realms of consciousness, must have reinforced all that Kate Nicholson had imbibed as a girl, growing up in the Nicholson household.

Throughout her long life, Kate Nicholson continued to mine this rich artistic inheritance - and she put it to good use by developing a very distinctive, individual style. Her work is various in subject matter and she comfortably explores both abstract and figurative motifs. Her command of subtle colour and tone has echoes of her mother's atmospheric quality, but her touch is often sterner, more spare, less sweet. Her willingness to explore Non Objective abstraction provides echoes of her father's - and Barbara Hepworth's - dedicated exclusion of the figurative, and yet these pieces have an epigrammatic eloquence about them which is the very contradiction of the assertive - occasionally laboured - seriousness of her father and stepmother's work. Kate Nicholson's gestural style might be suggestive of Lanyon's painting but - once again - she translates this with a delicacy and a restraint which is wholly her own.

After leaving Corsham Court, Nicholson taught, for a couple of years, at a school in Totnes. From 1956, when she settled in St. Ives and became a member of the Penwith Society, she divided her time between Cornwall and Cumbria, combining this with regular visits to the Hebrides. In the 1960s and '70s, Kate Nicholson travelled, often with her mother, to places of more brilliant light, including Greece, Italy, Sicily and Morocco. Being bathed in the particular landscape and light of each of these familiar places must have sharpened Nicholson's sensitivity to luminosity and character and helped her to calibrate and depict hue, form and atmosphere in paintings of great subtlety and radiance - whether these are flower pictures, landscapes or colourful gestures to abstraction.

Kate Nicholson's work has been widely exhibited. She began to show in Carlisle as early as 1951 and with the Penwith Society in 1956. 1959 saw her first solo exhibition, at the Waddington Galleries, London and, in 1966, at the Marjorie Parr Gallery. In 1961, her work was included in the Arts Council touring show, Six Young Painters and she also exhibited with both her parents in Will's Lane Gallery, St. Ives, in 1983. Her work is still shown, today, in Cornwall, Cumbria and London. It is also held by one of our (and, surely, everyone else's?) favourite galleries, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge[5], where Kate Nicholson's pictures share this most evocative of environments with work by artists such as David Jones and Elisabeth Vellacott, her parents' old friend, Christopher Wood and her half-brother, Simon Hepworth Nicholson - and by her father Ben, and her mother, Winifred Nicholson. And, in 2019, the year of Kate Nicholson's death, it was her nephew, Jovan Nicholson, who published the first monograph on Kate Nicholson, to accompany the exhibition of her work which he curated at the Falmouth Art Gallery.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013


[1] Kate Nicholson was also the grand-daughter of William Nicholson, on her father's side, and, on her mother's side, great-grand-daughter of the painter and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle.

[2]Winifred Nicholson claimed that, 'no one has ever painted yellow before Mondrian .. yet Mondrian has only just started - has just opened a crack the way into the realm of Abstract endeavour'. In 1938, with war looming, it was Winifred who persuaded Mondrian to leave Paris and settle in London.

[3]The very influential Principal, Clifford Ellis, reputedly approached Lord Methuen (whose seat was, and is, Corsham Court), after the War, and asked what was going to happen with the part of Corsham Court that had been a convalescent home. Then, 'the whole thing was fixed up in something like a week' and students began to study at Corsham Court shortly afterwards. See Derek Pope, A Celebration of Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, 1997, for further information.

[4] Quoted by Margaret Garlake, The Drawings of Peter Lanyon, 2003, p.5.

[5] See 'Pan's Frolic', 1962, from the Kettle's Yard collection, on the invaluable Art UK website: https://artuk.org/