Frances Spalding

Painting the Blues

Dear Winifred: Christopher Wood Letters to Winifred and Ben Nicholson 1926–1930

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Sansom & Co 120pp £15 order from our bookshop

Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray: Art and Life 1920–1931

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Dulwich Picture Gallery and Philip Wilson Publishers 192pp £45 order from our bookshop

Winifred Nicholson never forgot the first viewing that she and her husband, Ben Nicholson, had of Christopher Wood’s pictures. All of them were then living in Chelsea, Wood in a house that belonged to Tony Gandarillas, a wealthy member of a powerful Chilean dynasty. The paintings were crowded together in Wood’s small bedroom but each one seemed to the Nicholsons a masterpiece. ‘We walked home in the high skies. Here was England’s first painter. His vision is true. His grasp is real. His power is life itself.’

This was 1926, the year in which Ben Nicholson became chairman of the Seven & Five Society. A moderniser, he immediately crisped up the title by replacing words with digits, so that it became the ‘7 & 5’ Society, and then dropped ‘Society’ as old-fashioned and lacking the kind of definiteness and vitality that he sought in his art. Wood, on the other hand, had up until now been something of an artist-playboy, dividing his time with Gandarillas between Paris, the South of France and London. But his meeting with the Nicholsons altered his outlook; he told his mother, they ‘gave me something which is agreeable and cool like fresh linen’. In 1928 he stayed with them in Bankshead, their renovated but still-spartan farmhouse in Cumbria; later that year he joined them again in St Ives. ‘He arrived like a meteor,’ Winifred recollected. They all painted furiously, sharing ideas and inspiring one another. But, for Wood, one of the important ingredients in this association was the Nicholsons’ way of life. ‘The Bankshead life’, he declared afterwards, in more than one letter, ‘is the painter’s life.’

‘Blue was his colour,’ Winifred Nicholson later wrote, ‘and the evolution of the use of blue in his work is the evolution of the driving power of his life.’ This interesting but slightly baffling remark must have been inspired by the dense blue and black seas that Wood painted during the summers of 1929 and 1930 at Tréboul in Brittany. There, his work did seem to reach a pitch of maximum intensity and strength, and on the second visit, which lasted two months, he worked at phenomenal speed, producing some forty pictures. One of these, Le Phare, was acquired by H S (Jim) Ede and is today to be found in his house-museum, Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. To Ede, it expressed the ‘mystery and openness’ of Wood’s character. More pointedly, he argued, ‘The picture is essentially a thing of itself. It is the sea, in terms of paint, and boats too, and beyond this is the world of the artist’s thought.’ In July 1930, Wood wrote to Ben and Winifred Nicholson in a confident manner: ‘I feel my work going ahead, getting stronger and a little more serious in design & more direct in idea & less naive.’ Yet two months later he was dead, having thrown himself under a train at Salisbury station.

The questions that cling to his suicide add to the feeling that Kit Wood, as he was called by friends, is not easy to grasp, despite the fact that his life has been fully recounted in a biography by Richard Ingleby and also compressed into a fine portrait by Sebastian Faulks in The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. A yearning remains to get more inside his story and this makes a selection of his letters welcome. They turn out to be as alive and direct as his paintings, and the brisk accompanying introduction by Anne Goodchild provides a great deal of the necessary background information.

Yet Wood deserves better than this. The decision to focus solely on his four-year relationship with the Nicholsons would have made more sense if both sides of the correspondence had been included. Admittedly, Wood’s friendship with these two artists was vitally important to him, but more insights into it could have been provided by the addition of some of his letters to his mother and to others. The book is said to be edited by Goodchild, but no footnotes are provided and much detail – concerning exhibitions, galleries, persons and a dog – requires annotation. The list of dramatis personae is helpful but unheralded and is only discovered on reaching the end of the book. There are some amusing typos: Galerie Barbazanges first appears as ‘Barbajonges’ and then as ‘Barbazangos’. The illustrations are welcome, but the choice is disappointing, relying almost entirely on well-known works in public collections.

Pleasure in these letters will be enhanced if the reader has at hand the catalogue to an exhibition that began in Leeds and is touring to Kettle’s Yard (15 February–11 May) and Dulwich Picture Gallery (4 June–21 September). It is curated by Jovan Nicholson, the grandson of Ben and Winifred, and focuses on the creative association between the Nicholsons, Wood, the fisherman-turned-painter Alfred Wallis (whom Ben and Kit discovered in St Ives) and the potter William Staite Murray. Many of the gaps and puzzles in the narrative surrounding Wood’s letters to the Nicholsons are answered here, for Jovan’s introductory essay draws upon intimate knowledge of his subject and of the landscape around Bankshead.

After staying there, Wood could not revert to his former way of life. From France he wrote to the ‘Nickies’, ‘Paris is a little too shut in and unfresh & I freeze with cold if I make so much as a drawing out of doors.’ He also claimed that he was ‘trying to base my life like yours to live so simply that I can’t have worries’. Formerly he had led a tense but charmed existence among an artistic and moneyed elite, which included Picasso and Cocteau. Familiarity with their work had added a touch of sophistication to his own, which was already influenced by the paintings of the naive artist Henri Rousseau. Initially Wood had drawn on Rousseau’s habit of bringing every ingredient to the fore of the picture surface. But as he matured as an artist, Wood began to exaggerate his response to the physical nature of objects, be they the stones in a harbour wall or the wooden boards on the floor of a boat. In this way he succeeded in conveying a heightened sense of awareness. Drugs may have played a part in this, for Cocteau had introduced him to opium.

What emerges from both the letters and the catalogue is the intense struggle that went on inside Wood before he was able to find his direction as an artist. Sebastian Faulks was right to emphasise the fact that, like others of his generation, Wood grew up in the shadow of war. Hence the refuge he took in worldly pleasures, especially in Paris, where, Anne Goodchild correctly observes, he had to hold in tension demands made on him by society with his need to fulfil himself as an artist through isolation and commitment. Eight years of his short life were spent with Gandarillas, a bisexual like himself, with a pronounced love of luxury. ‘He gives me nearly everything’, he told Winifred, ‘except energy to work.’ But it was Gandarillas who, after Wood died, wrote to Winifred: ‘I also see exactly like you in most of his pictures, that journey to the far horizon & that longing for which is beyond this world.’

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