Ben Nicholson


Illsley WS1

William Scott would appear to be a man of my own heart. It’s clear from his paintings that he spent a lot of time in the kitchen, admired his raw ingredients, and revered his frying pan. I spent some time gazing at a large William Scott canvas at the 2008 British Art Fair at the RCA, imagining how it would look in my kitchen. In the end though, I decided that if it was one piece from the show that was coming home with me, it would have to be the small white relief, carved out of some old door by Scott’s contemporary and friend, Ben Nicholson.

Illsley BN5

Ben was a man of his time, modern when it meant it. In the 1930s he abandoned colour for white, and went slightly 3D, producing stripped down art depicting nothing but the odd hole set in an irregular rectangle, awkwardly next to another, with a surface worn down by sand paper or scratched with a knife. These were perfect adornments for an equally stripped down, correctly angled, white Bauhaus dwelling, filled with light looking for an edge to shadow, or something pale to tint and soften at sunset.

Most people are not of their time, living with tastes, attitudes and beliefs belonging to an earlier age, sometimes centuries before, so while Ben’s aesthetic vision was not widely appreciated in his day, eighty years later it’s old-fashioned enough to have mass appeal.  Thanks to Kevin Mcleod, we all now want Corbusier, a flat roof and glass wall. And thanks to Elle Decoration, Van der Rohe’s swanky Barcelona chair is atop the want list of many a salon, a lion in that zoo of cliches known as “Interior Design”. Today, we need Ben Nicholson’s on our walls. But it’s too late. Ben  is dead, he did not make that many when he was alive, and they are all snapped up.

Illsley BN1

Still, here was one, and it was available. My zig zaggy route round the Art Fair seemed to draw me pass it time and again. Why these glimpses and stares felt so calming and fascinating was difficult to fathom, but I kept coming back, finally settling in front of it, like a Crufts’ judge who had made his mind up.  The dealer sidled up to me.

“How much is the Ben Nicholson?”, I asked. “£250,000” he replied.

Reflecting on the next five seconds from a safe distance, I can see that I had come a long way. I could not have blinked, or given any indication of whatever it was that bungee jumped down my insides. I had not hinted at which financial league I was in, if indeed one would call it a league, and he clearly had no idea that I was in fact unemployed, since he continued with his minimalist sales pitch, honed over a thousand similar moments in Cork Street, adding with blind futility, “You have exquisite taste sir”.


Maybe. But that’s not much use here. I smiled and stepped nearer for a long, close look. “Gesso on board” it said, probably hard board, but what is gesso?  It looked about 2 foot by 18 inches. The hole was about 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and a quarter of an inch deep, with an interior painted with a glossy oil.  The irregular rectangles were spaced sort of centrally, a bit skew-whiff, and the surface had been attacked, slashed with Stanley knife.  We left Kensington Gore, went home, I got in the car, and drove to the New Malden B&Q. DIY I thought.


I do not think I am quite up to Ben’s standard, but am nonetheless pleased with the result, and also of those I have made since, all of which have found nice trendy homes to live in. Buoyed up by my success, I had a crack at oil painting too, and knocked up a William Scott incorporating my pale blue Le Creuset casserole.