An ART LOVER's GUIDE TO CAMBRIDGE
Cyclamen and Primula, c 1924
Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981)
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 have 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 this afternoon you can visit the House via their live webcam 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".
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Gallery 5, Fitzwilliam Museum
Let's start where it all began with a painting from the Fitzwilliam Museum. "If ever you get a case of post-Christmas blues in January," I tell people when we look at it together,
"Come and sit in front of this painting in Gallery 5 and I guarantee you will feel better". Painted in 1886 after Monet had settled in Giverny, it is a joyous reminder of nature's bounty and a glorious depiction of spring.
Monet captures the moment when the orchard is just about to burst into full bloom. The sunshine through the trees casts flickering shadows on the soft grassy glades below. Seated in the foreground is Suzanne Hoschedé, the daughter of Monet's mistress and future wife Alice and his own son, Jean, whose mother, Camille, had sadly died in 1877. They sit together partly encircled in the trunk and bough of a tree, the red of Suzanne's hair ribbon contrasting with the vivid green of the grass to make it appear even brighter.
Look closely at that tree trunk. It is astonishing to see how many different colours Monet used to paint it - yellow, violet, blue, pink and indigo but not a brushstroke of brown in sight. It was this use of colour, amongst other things, that appalled the critics. They accused Monet and his fellow Impressionists of "violettomania" and one commentator described the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877 as having the overall effect of a worm-eaten Roquefort cheese!
Now we look at paintings like this with a sense of wonder and appreciation. A reminder in these difficult times of brighter, sunnier days ahead.