The other Nicholson

We’ve just come back from a holiday in Cornwall with my good friend and fellow painter Debbie George (Bee), her husband Andrew Sanderson (a fabulous photographer), and our children (five between the two families). When Bee and I first met, she was just about to have their third child and was still running the wonderful Sanderson, George and Peach Gallery in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. While managing the gallery, juggling three young children, and keeping up with the house, she was also determinedly trying to keep up her painting practice. Bee was there literally moments after the birth of my first daughter, and along with many other things, she helped and encouraged me to figure out the demands of balancing motherhood and art. For Bee, that eventually meant giving up the Gallery, and although it isn’t easy her paintings are now flying out of the studio and onto people’s walls.

Whenever I spend time with Bee, we inevitably start talking about that balance, particularly in relation to some of our mutual influences, many of whom are female artists of the 20th century. In some cases, these women have succeeded through sheer bloody-mindedness. In others, they’ve never quite reached their full potential—the pull of the house, the children, or even simply the pressures of their own artist-husbands’ careers, proving too much. Helen Saunders, one of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist crew, once noted that the marriage of two artists would inevitably end in the woman’s subordinating her art to the needs (and talent) of her husband. Well, I didn’t marry an artist (though he’s creative in different ways) and although Bee married an artistic photographer, their mutual support is inspirational. But I do wonder whether, unintentionally or not, female artists are always battling against the other roles that threaten to subordinate them; and it is simply a fact that of those artistic partnerships that spring to mind, in the majority of cases the household name in the UK at least will be the man rather than the woman. The art world has always been patriarchal, but there’s more to it than that.

Which brings me to the other Nicholson: Winifred. Winifred (Roberts) was Ben Nicholson’s first wife. They married in 1920, had three children, and divorced in 1938. That same year Nicholson married Barbara Hepworth, for whom he’d already left Winifred and the children in 1931. Ben and Hepworth had triplets in 1934, the year after she divorced her first husband, John Skeaping. Yes, I’ll admit, it is partly that vaguely incestuous kind of intrigue that draws me to groups like the St. Ives and Bloomsbury cliques! Anyway, Nicholson and Hepworth were friends with Piet Mondrian, who famously once told Nicholson that marriage and children spelt disaster for the artist (this was on the event of the marriage of their mutual friend Jean H). Winifred has been one of the biggest influences on my painting for over a decade. She had a pretty big impact on Ben, too, as far as I can tell, who regarded her work highly and her criticism of his work even more so. Winifred joined the Seven and Five Society the year after Ben; her work was incredibly diverse and often very challenging; her landscapes, in particular, are wonderful and, in my opinion every bit as good as Ben’s. But of the two of them, Ben is the one with all the major accolades. There are all sorts of reasons for this, aren’t there, and maybe I just have to accept that despite my love for Winifred’s work (and don’t get me wrong, I love Ben’s work too) Ben was the more important painter. But I do think Winifred was both talented and important enough (she wrote wonderfully, too) to be more of a household name than she is. Could it be that she was simply eclipsed by virtue of being Ben’s first (and less successful) wife? When they divorced, she carried on working, first in Paris and later in Yorkshire, but she had the kids, of course, and there’s a juggling act that can’t be underestimated. And it’s no simple equation – studio time doesn’t mean all that much if head-space is limited…

There are plenty of others in a similar position – including women who have had substantial success, but who seem to have chosen, quite deliberately, to subordinate their art to their husband’s or lover’s: Tirzah (Garwood) Ravilious is one that particularly saddens me. Prior to her marriage to Eric she proved herself to be an exceptionally talented wood engraver; after marriage, she engraved no more. See this wonderful blog post by Neil at Adventures in the Print Trade for more); and I could go on, of course – Elaine de Kooning; Margaret Macdonald (Charles Rennie Macintosh); Sophie Taeuber (Hans Arp)….

Naturally, there are exceptions. Vanessa Bell, for instance, is probably better known than her writer-husband Clive Bell and at least as well known as her long-term companion the painter Duncan Grant. With help, she also seems to have been a good mother to Angelica, Quentin and Julian (okay, excepting the revelations about A’s paternity that clouded her early teenage years…). Further afield, Georgia O’Keefe matched Alfred Stieglitz’s fame (no children). There were a lot of women (and husband-wife teams) in the Russian avant-garde movement: Natalia Goncharova, lifelong partner of Mikhail Larionov, was hugely influential (but again, no children). We can’t forget Frida Kahlo, of course, although the struggles she faced are infamous and arguably form part of her cache. Back closer to home, there’s Mary Fedden, who is still painting in her mid 90s, has probably been as successful (though still possibly not as famous) as her husband Julian Trevelyan. Outliving him for 23 years and counting can’t hurt! And, conceding that I sound like a broken record, she had no children. Hepworth herself, of course, achieved acclaim and success at a pretty similar level to Ben, although her well-documented single-mindedness is exceptional. She was able (both psychologically and practically) to put her art first. Her daughter Rachel Nicholson, for instance, remembers that “my mother on the whole really only, as far as I can recall, emerged [from the studio] for meals, and a day or two at Christmas”!

I live in hope, though, that the juggling exercise is possible, as it appears to have been for my favourite, Mary Newcomb, whose younger daughter Tessa is also a superb painter. This post might seem like a complaint. It’s not intended to be – I have no regrets about becoming a mother/wife/artist/gardener/dogwalker/cat-cleaner/woman-of-myriad-distractions. Both my daughters are artistic and I love spending time with them in the studio. I can put up with my husband (although he’s a classic example of someone who’s capable of putting work first!) and I know it’s a massive luxury to be able to do what I do, housework or not. But it is one of the material realities of the artworld that we rarely consider when we’re wandering around the archive, wondering where all the women went…


I’ve never really thought of myself as a feminist—and I still don’t—but I started singing with a couple of other ladies about a year ago. We perform mainly old English folk songs and we were tickled when we noticed that our repertoire consists largely of songs by and about feisty women who don’t have much truck with the patriarchy. I feel a song coming on!

[The above images are all sourced from and are copyright the Trustees of Winifred Nicholson]


Filed under Fine art

2 responses to “The other Nicholson

  1. Fabulous blog post Jo, lots of food for thought. Heathen that I am, I’d never heard of either Nicholson’s but I can so see what you adore in Winifred’s work. So much depth and emotion in the pieces. Just beautiful and I can see the influence on yours too.

    I have a suspicion that women generally subjugate their own needs when raising a family that it spills out into the rest of the realm too. Family comes first, especially in the early years when you don’t get to eat until 10pm. It tends to make more sense to bolster one income stream, rather than have two which are both disrupted and more vulnerable so the husband’s career becomes stronger. It becomes harder to change the pattern later, restarting and rejoining your work (whatever that may be) after a period of different focus.

    I’m utterly shocked that you don’t consider yourself to be a feminist? Why on earth not? Perhaps you mean something other than I do with that. I’d have said were one of the strongest feminists I know.

    • Hi Mei,
      thank you for this! Glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you entirely that women’s professional lives can so often end up being subjugated – although many would argue it’s a choice. I feel it’s been a choice for me, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating! In our case the economics were dead simple – David earns money, I earn peanuts! Now that I have the time and opportunity to start painting properly again, though, it’s dispiriting to see just how much it’s a case of starting again…

      I am tickled that you see me as such a feminist. The reason I have never thought of myself as one I suppose is that I see it as an overt political statement, and I definitely don’t see myself as a particularly political person. I certainly believe in equality. I guess I tend to associate the label of feminist with a kind of hardline movement, and I know there are probably different ways of looking at it/being one. Having said that, I am particularly influenced by motivated and talented women – but I’ve always tended to see that as a matter of taste rather than affiliation. I’d be intrigued to know more about what you think.

      How are you all, by the way?

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