Blessed with a light touch

‘This place looks even more beautiful this year in stormy weather, and is even harder to paint. The high mountains shroud themselves and blot themselves out with white cloud with black cloud with drifting mist and drifting sunshine - the sea is silver is black is azure is white with sea horses, is not visible at all."

Written in 1952 by the painter Winifred Nicholson, from Sandaig on the coast of Wester Ross, these words perfectly describe the sensation of looking at her paintings. Sandaig was the home of Gavin Maxwell, made famous as Camusfearna in his Ring of Bright Water, and it was here, during the 1950s, that Nicholson came to paint with her friend, the poet Kathleen Raine.

A new exhibition of Nicholson’s work opening at the Dean Gallery this month examines the painter’s relationship with Scotland, which became a much loved subject from the 1950s until her death in 1981.

As well as staying at Gavin Maxwell’s at Sandaig, she travelled all over Scotland making frequent working trips to other islands; Eigg, Canna, South Uist and Skye. Deeply attracted to the landscape of the Western Isles and the constantly unfolding weather conditions, her illustration of the resulting play of light crackles from the surfaces of her paintings.

Nicholson is one of the most enduring but least well known of the British artists of the 20th century. When her estate sold the copyright to one of her paintings, Vermillion and Mauve to the IKEA group, which now owns Habitat, the print became an instant bestseller. Though it hangs in countless flats and apartments, few are aware of the identity of the artist responsible.

Jake Bell, the owner of Artists Cards, who supplies art gallery shops around the country, sells more of Nicholson’s Gate to the Isles than any other card in his portfolio.

According to Michael Harrison, director of the famous Cambridge gallery, Kettle’s Yard, the last exhibition of her work outsold any they had previously put on tour. This was narrowly beaten a year later by a retrospective of her husband Ben Nicholson’s work. By rights, Winifred Nicholson should be a household name.

Her credentials among her peers and in the European art scene are hard to rival. She was involved in the abstract movement in Paris during the 1930s. She knew Brancusi, Braque, Giacometti, Jean Hugo, Cesar Domela, Tauber-Arp and Piet Mondrian. In Britain, too, she was prominent among the modern artists of the day. She was part of the St Ives movement and ranked with artists like John Piper, Ivon Hitchens, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and her husband Ben Nicholson. Today her paintings are highly prized.

Many of Nicholson’s finest works are of flowers. Nicknamed "the female Van Gogh", she was widely exhibited and well reviewed. However she was more than a mere illustrator of botanics. She saw in flowers, absolute colour. A Times notice in 1928 wrote of her "uncanny sense of flowers, of what they are behind their shapes and colours". Light permeates her images. In fact, her life as a painter was a continuous search for the effects of light, and it was in Scotland that she found the right qualities.

In 1950, during her first visit to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, she wrote to her son Andrew: "This is the place after my heart. I wonder if you would like it. Not a tree not a bush. But grey boulders, grey rocks, grey stones, grey mountains. And bog in between - In the bog, lochs with waterlilies, and rare ferns that love the black peaty soil - The sea full of mysterious islands and rocks, seals and seabirds. White glistening beaches and transparent sea all the way across to Eriskay. Blue mountains of Barra to the west - and the Cuillin far away snow covered to the south."

Nicholson’s reputation has always been somewhat overshadowed by the widespread renown of her husband Ben, who made a considerable impact as one of the last century’s most important abstract artists. They encouraged each other and from their letters it is clear that he always sought and valued her opinion and approval.

The two married in the 1920s and had three children. They moved from Italy to Paris and then to Cumbria, Nicholson always in search of something dramatic in the light. Some time after they had returned to England, Ben left his family to live in London with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. This came as a great sadness to Nicholson but they remained close and continued to be a great influence on each other’s work throughout their lives.

After the separation and following the death of Nicholson’s great friend Christopher Wood, she moved back to Paris with the children. She, Jake, Andrew and Kate, lived in a small flat and she painted. She had already established contacts with the Paris art world and became an intermediary for the London scene. She described herself at this time as "fizzing like a soda water bottle" at the heart of European Modernism.

One of the strongest friendships she established was with Mondrian. When eventually war threatened France, in the autumn of 1938, he left Paris accompanied by Nicholson and her children. One of his paintings Composition 1932 - Yellow Rectangle hung in her Cumberland home for 50 years. That painting is now in the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

Nicholson had been brought up in Cumberland and lived in a house that straddles Hadrian’s Wall, so Scotland must have always been in her view, but it was not until she met Kathleen Raine that the visits to the Outer Hebrides began.

Poet Raine met fellow writer Gavin Maxwell in London. They were both part of the literary world of Fitzrovia, enjoying a chaotic friendship which was both inspiring and painful and ultimately, like most things Maxwell encountered, tinged by misery.

According to Douglas Botting, Maxwell’s biographer, Raine was passionate about him. She too writes that she loved him with her "whole soul", but he was utterly selfish and his sexual interests lay elsewhere. Though a brilliant writer and despite his aristocratic background, he was an alcoholic and largely penniless for most of his life. Despite the successes of his books and the film, his reckless grand schemes, his taste for whisky and Mercedes roadsters, soon exhausted any funds he made.

However Maxwell had managed to find a refuge in Scotland from the demands of Fitzrovia and his madcap adventures abroad. He had spent much of his life in Ross-shire and worked there with the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Raine recalls that "Gavin, from the wreck of his fortunes, had kept one thing; a small shepherd’s house on a friend’s estate on a wild coast of the Western Highlands."

The "ring of bright water", the phrase that was to become inextricably linked to this place and Maxwell, was actually coined by Raine in a poem she had written when she first visited Sandaig in 1949. It described the two burns that ran around the Rowan tree close to the house. In the end Maxwell believed that this was also the curse that later led to the fire that destroyed his otters and his home.

He allowed Raine to rent the croft when he was away and it was here in the summer of 1951 that she and her friend Nicholson Nicholson came on their first painting trip. And Nicholson found the light there she needed to work with.

The simplicity of Nicholson’s subjects belies the complexity of her vision. Her work is in no way conventional and she always chooses her subject to best convey the immanence of colour. "I paint flowers", she wrote, "but they are not botanical or photographic flowers. My paintings talk in colour and any of the shapes are there to express colour but not outlines."

So her theories of colour went beyond the representational. Alice Strang, the curator of the forthcoming exhibition in Edinburgh, says: "What she attempted to do in her paintings was to capture and express colour, rather than represent things." For Nicholson, colour and the light that shone through or across it provided an access to the metaphysical. She once wrote to Raine that "the time at Eigg was a glimpse through".

Nicholson was a Christian Scientist after becoming interested in the church in the 1920s. Christian Science demands an intellectual rigour of its followers and this appealed to Nicholson. She was also attracted to the church’s teachings, based on a set of philosophical Christian assertions which rely on the knowledge of man’s purest being as a reflection of the divine. Man’s spiritual goal is simply to transcend the corporeal limitations of his mortal being. Through painting Nicholson was able to access a divine aspect of light.

Nicholson was always receptive to challenging ideas. Influenced by Jean Hugo and Cesar Domela, she painted and exhibited a number of abstract works in the 1920s, and frequently contributed to intellectual magazines and journals. In later life she met Professor Glen Schaefer, also a Christian Scientist, who introduced to her the idea of painting through a prism. By doing so she could see the same division of light into colour that appears in a rainbow.

This confirmed her personal colour theory, which she summarises as "how form is related to colour - colour is not just a coat over objects - it lies on the rim of objects between one form or the neighbouring form or space". In the paintings Rhododendrons, Eigg and Hebridean Roses, she looked through a prism and captured the same spectrum of light in the flowers as is caught in the glass vases by the sun. What results is a dance of light across the paintings. Candle, Eigg, is another painting with extraordinary iridescence as the flame disperses across the canvas in a rainbow of colour.

But the visits to Scotland with Raine, more than anything, were about their shared love of nature, freedom to work and the simplicity of life on the islands. Both loved flowers and used them as a point of departure in their work. In one room Winifred painted and in another Kathleen wrote.

Nicholson was also a devoted mother. She would always have one or other of her children with her on these trips. Usually they would stay in the islander’s homes or in an empty croft, living simply. Although her grandfather was the Earl of Carlisle, she had no interest in making contact with the landed aristocracy in Scotland. She found the buildings and lifestyle overbearing and gloomy. Her interests lay elsewhere. Wherever she was staying she would be absorbed by the local crafts - dyeing clothes from lichens and mosses - collecting wild shells and flowers. She and Raine would eat a menu of wild plants and shellfish from the shore at Sandaig.

The painting in this exhibition that most successfully captures the search in Nicholson’s work, for light is the 1958 View from Gavin Maxwell’s. In the foreground are glass vases of wildflowers with shells strewn around them. The impact of the colours is characteristic of her work, but it is the azure of the sea beyond the house seen through the haze of sunlight that fuses colour with the light, and makes it seem like you are actually there. When she is painting the stormy seas around Canna in Equinox, the light that "glimpses through" evokes the sensation of seeing beyond, the very effect Nicholson sought.

In an essay The Flower’s Response, Nicholson gives a voice to her familiar subjects: "My rootlets are moving in the dark, in the wet, cold, damp mud - My leaflets are moving in the brightness of the sky - My flowerface has seen the darkness which cannot be seen, and the brightness that is too bright to see - has seen earth to sun and sun to earth." Nowhere was that more true than in her trips to Scotland.

• Winifred Nicholson in Scotland runs from 10 July-7 September, at the Dean Gallery, Belford Road.

Back to the top of the page