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An architect's artist

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Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art By Sarah Jane Checkland. John Murray, 2000. 486pp. £25

As the elderly Ben Nicholson was being shown round the Tate Gallery, the senior curator accompanying him was amazed to see him tucking one of his own paintings under his arm, planning to take it away for adjustment. Nicholson's tendency to revise his paintings 30 or even 40 years later was one aspect of a controlling personality, sweetened and effectively disguised by puckish charm. In the same vein, he ordered that no biography be written, an edict oddly at variance with the huge personal archive which he left to the Tate neatly bundled and labelled - on which Sarah Jane Checkland has quite legitimately drawn.

Nicholson embarked on his tenacious and, for many years, unrewarding pursuit of abstract art in the shadow of his father, William, an accomplished academic painter, who further ensured his son was at odds with him throughout adult life by snatching Ben's first serious girlfriend and marrying her.

Ben Nicholson's long years without recognition were sustained by a combination of his own self confidence, underpinned by his Christian Science beliefs and the support of his first wife - the kindly, talented Winifred - whom he soon abandoned (along with their three children) for the tough and ambitious Barbara Hepworth.

One of the strands that Checkland's intriguing biography touches upon is Nicholson's continual examination of the relationship between art and architecture, and the implicit connections between new architecture and his own series of white reliefs and later constructions. In Paris in the 1930s he got to know Braque, Mondrian and the Arps, whose Modern Movement house was Nicholson's introduction to the style. Back in London, he was part of the pre-war circles through which Naum Gabo, Walter Gropius, Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chemayeff moved and was a close friend of Leslie Martin and one of the Circle group.However, as Nicholson's brother-in-law John Summerson wrote, he 'never committed himself to partisanship or subscribed to a manifesto' and, writing in the Penguin Modern Painters series in 1948, described him holding 'a position of isolation and, indeed, of anomaly'.

In the 1960s Nicholson began to finally gain the international esteem he had long sought.He remained exigent.Having conceived a desire to make great wall reliefs - in part driven by envy of his, by then, ex-wife Hepworth's move to large-scale exterior pieces - he was always dissatisfied with the locations offered.He wanted them 'in the countryside or against the sea or in relation to a good Mies or Martin building'. The first was shown at the Kassel Documenta in 1964 but thereafter he could never find a site worthy of the piece. Working with the endlessly patient Geoffrey Jellicoe he rejected one on the South Bank, another in Cheltenham, a third at Sussex University. The only wall relief to emerge was a commission buried deep in a rich man's park at Sutton Place in Surrey, where Jellicoe placed it reflecting in a rectangular pool.

Nicholson's craving for the purity of abstraction was to become an exquisite dead end.To reach it he became cruelly dismissive of old friends and supporters. Christopher Wood, Jim Ede, Adrian Stokes and Gabo were among many who fell by the wayside, including members of his own family.This biography leaves one tempting, but unanswerable, 'what if?'.

Nicholson's brother Kit was a promising Modern movement architect who died in a gliding accident just after the Second World War. In his company, and with his guidance, Ben Nicholson might well have consummated that marriage of architecture and art which always eluded him, despite the laurels and recognition which he had achieved late in his long life.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture, art and landscape

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