Winifred Nicholson by Christopher Andreae - review by Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

‘A New Mystery and Gaiety’

Winifred Nicholson


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Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981) had a passion for flowers and painted them with gusto. It was not the intricate details of stem, leaf and bloom that fascinated her but the burst of life and colour offered by simple nosegays in a jug or plain vase, placed on a windowsill with a view of landscape beyond. These paintings won her many admirers. Even Mondrian, who so hated the colour green that he painted white the stem and leaves of the single plastic tulip in the hallway of his Parisian apartment, enjoyed her work, and not just her 1930s abstracts. Her naturalistic paintings, he wrote in one letter, were ‘very pure and true’. Likewise Helen Sutherland, one of the most advanced and discerning collectors in the inter-war years, thought they had ‘a new mystery and gaiety’ and that they were both ‘earthly and unearthly’. The artist herself claimed she had caught in some of these flower paintings ‘the secret of the cosmos’. Certainly she went far beyond the trite prettiness often associated with this genre. ‘People must be dumb’, declared her husband Ben Nicholson, ‘who do not see that your paintings are ideas and not “portraits of flowers”.’

Yet it is hard to know how to place Winifred Nicholson. In 1987, six years after her death, the Tate honoured her with a substantial retrospective, curated and catalogued by Judith Collins. That same year Faber & Faber published Unknown Colour: Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, a

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