Ben Nicholson’s extraordinary relief, Aug 62 (Valle Maggia), hails from the equally exceptional Schlumberger collection; Pierre, the Houston-based oil-industry tycoon from one of France’s most distinguished aristocratic families and São, the glamorous and ambitious daughter of a Portuguese landowner and German heiress. They met, got engaged and were married in 1961, the following year Schlumberger Limited became a public company with Pierre as President, its stock market value nearly $450 million. Renowned patrons of arts, the Schlumbergers both supported artists and assisted prominent art institutions in their acquisitions; São (who commissioned portraits by Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol) sat on the board of the Pompidou Centre, Paris, as well as making substantial donations to the collection and was also a long-term member of the International Council for the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1972 and Vice President from 1993. Nicholson returned to geometric abstraction and relief carving in the 1960s following his return to Switzerland in 1958, where his palette was immediately effected by the surrounding landscape. Painted in the summer of 1962, Valle Maggia brilliantly evokes the sheer cliffs and crystal waters of the picturesque alpine valley through which the river Maggia flows.
The artist described the impact of this landscape to Herbert Read, emphasising colours key to his favourite season, winter, in Ticino: ‘This landscape is a knock out now, a marvellous whitish brown & plenty of snow on the mountains opposite which have a hard, clear, rounded form & a superb snow white on their tops against a blue such as I’ve never seen before & this morning a wisp of transparent golden crescent moon got up over the mountain immediately opposite.’
Following the complex still life arrangements of the 1950s, Nicholson returned to more simplified compositions with fewer forms in the 1960s. He also returned with enthusiasm to the creation of abstract carved reliefs on both a small and monumental scale. Nicholson made his first relief in Paris in 1933 and later recounted to Read that he had stumbled upon the idea when a small piece of gesso fell out of a prepared board he was working on and inspired him to carve it further: ‘mine came about by accident & bec. of Barbara’s sculptor’s tools lying around.’ Nicholson was already involved in scraping and incising his work in the late 1920s, in addition to carving lino blocks, and was aware of Adrian Stokes’ promotion of relief carving in books such as Stones of Rimini, 1934 (for which Nicholson designed the cover). His development towards direct carving can also be seen as a natural progression of his interest in overlapping planes and their spatial relationships stimulated by his experience of Cubism.
1 The artist, letter dated 28th December 1959, cited in J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, ibid., p. 90.
Frame size: 21 ¼ x 22 ⅜ in / 54 x 56.8 cm
Signature: Signed, dated and inscribed Ben /Nicholsonon/ aug 62/(valle maggia) on the reverse. Further stamped with the artist’s address: Nicholson/Brissago/Porta/Ticino on the reverse
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ben Nicholson, April-May 1963, no. 20, illustrated in colour
New York, André Emmerich Gallery & Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Ben Nicholson 1955-1965, April 1965, no. 31, illustrated in colour
Marlborough Fine Art, London
São Schlumberger, then by descent