On my last visit to Kettle Yard, just three weeks ago, I learnt something new. This, in itself, is not unusual. It happens each time I visit the house as I invariably see something I missed on previous occasions. It may be a natural object juxtaposed with a painting, a cylindrical jar standing proud in the midst of potted plants or the ephemeral effect of light falling on the wooden floorboards.
This time I was looking at Winifred Nicholson's Cyclamen and Primula, painted almost 100 years ago. Born Winifred Roberts, she was already an established artist when she met and married Ben Nicholson in 1920. A few years later they became neighbours of Jim and Helen Ede in Hampstead. Jim later wrote that it was the Nicholsons who introduced him to contemporary art and that "Winifred .. taught me much about the fusing of art and daily living, and Ben that traffic in Piccadilly had the rhythm of a ballet, and a game of tennis the perfection of an old master. Life with them at once seemed lively, satisfying and special".
This painting of a cyclamen and a primula sitting on a window sill seems to epitomise this fusion of art and life. What could be more everyday? Yet Winifred Nicholson gives her quotidian subjects a beauty, balance and dignity beyond the ordinary. The two plants, still in their paper wrapping, seem to salute one another. The muted overall colour scheme is broken up by the purple of the cyclamen flowers and the sharp yellows and green of the primula leaves. Light floods through the window to cast sharp shadows onto the sill. In the background are the mountains of Switzerland where Ben and Winifred bought a house in 1921 and spent their summers.
What I didn't know until my last visit to Kettles Yard was that the inspiration for these paintings was a gift from Ben. Winifred later wrote "Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley ... in a tissue paper wrapper – this I stood on the window sill – behind was the azure blue, Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there – and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe ... after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill, in cyclamen, primula or cineraria ... I have often wished for another painting spell like that, but never had one."
Jim Ede bought the painting over 30 years later in the late 1950s when it was offered to him by a Cambridge art dealer. It was covered in dirt and barely visible but after he had given it "a good scrubbing" he described it as a "delight of sunlit shadows and insubstantial substance".
If you want to see the sunlit shadows at Kettles Yard you can visit the House via their live webcam http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/kettles-yard-webcam/. Look out for William Staithe Murray's Jar (The Heron) next to Ben Nicholson's 1944 (mugs) in the top left. You'll have the whole house to yourself and as Jim wrote to an undergraduate in 1964 "Do come in as often as you like - the place is only alive when used".
Cyclamen and Primula, 1923 (circa), Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) Oil on board, 50 x 55 cm, © trustees of Winifred Nicholson. Photo credit: Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the recent Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.