Kate Nicholson

The below essay was written for our Kate Nicholson solo exhibition in 2013.

Here is an inspired flow of words that could be applied directly to Kate Nicholson’s paintings:

“. . . the rhythms, the variety, the weights, the aerial delight and certitude – as free as swallow’s flight – no correction – no cloying sweetness . . . . “

This was written by a potter about the “linear brushwork” decorating an ancient Chinese stoneware jar. The potter was Bernard Leach. Kate knew him at St Ives, and surely listened intently to him. His eloquent words touch on the intuitive naturalness, the freshness, of her works no less than the pot they describe.

In the striking photograph by Pamela Chandler of Kate in her St Ives studio, beautiful pots gather on her large table. Pottery has been an emphatic inspiration for her, clearly, both in form and decoration. On the wall behind her is one of her own paintings. It is next to a white relief by Ben Nicholson, her father, and a hanging scroll or banner decorated with Eastern calligraphy. The meaning of this calligraphy would seem to lie in image and gesture, in movement and deftness quite as much as in language. In her abstract paintings Kate adopts and invents her own swift forms of “calligraphy.” They speak for themselves in colour and brush-sweep. They seem to have leapt into existence with sudden energy and “certitude” out of some kind of deep contemplation. “Nonchalance” Leach also wrote, “is a good word to describe the way the Koreans and other craftsmen of the East approach their work” He quickly added that nonchalance is by no means the same as sloppiness. “. . . nonchalance and care are both present. It all depends on the spirit in which the work is done.” Again he could be speaking of Kate’s paintings. She, like Leach, tried to bring East and West together, exploring ways of balancing the West’s mechanistic culture and personality-worship by an Eastern kind of craftsman’s humility.

I first encountered her paintings years ago when Kate invited me down to St Ives. She persuasively suggested that as a very new writer-about-art something would be lacking if I had never been at least temporarily immersed in the St Ives atmosphere – clearly for her a centre of the art universe. She introduced me to several luminaries, including Bernard Leach. I could see that Kate held him in high regard. What was precisely said on that visit I do not really recall, but I do remember feeling his presence and his “certitude” while sipping a delicate green tea. Here, I realised, were certain depths of thought and experience I had not been aware of before.

But today when looking at Kate’s paintings, on very welcome display in Belgrave St Ives, past history is not what comes to mind. These paintings express nowness. They seem recent and new. The immediacy of a quick, vital swirl or curl, wave, ripple, flick, loop or upswing, is something sharply and swiftly in the present. These “aerial delights” occur on the picture plain, or in some imagined space between the viewer’s eyes and the canvas surface. There often are movements and colours interplaying and interweaving behind this prominent frontal happening. But all this movement has nothing to do with conventional linear perspective. Nor is it simply a descriptive foreground and background. It is – without being “kinetic art” that actually moves – a liberated free flight.

In a letter to Kate, the painter Winifred Nicholson, her mother, talked about the “gulf” of air between the very near (perhaps flowers on a windowsill) and very far (horizon or hill) that greatly engaged her attention. She suggested, however, that Kate might not see it that way. I believe that Kate didn’t see it that way. Her work seems more a matter of near and nearer, rather than a contrast of very near and very far. As her work became more abstract, the energy and content of her paintings were less and less restricted by a recognizable subject. Their theme is increasingly the direct encounter of brush with canvas, of paint and gesture. “Gesture” might be an ambiguous word here if it suggests some sort of theatricality, a performance act rather than an authentic experience. Kate was certainly aware of such apparently playful artists as Miro and Klee, and of “action painting” or “abstract expressionism.” Her time as a student of Bath Academy of Art, taught by William Scott, would have made her fully aware of such things. She was particularly struck by the work of Mark Tobey, another artist bringing together Eastern and Western culture. But she found her own individual means of discovery.

There is playfulness in her work, a hop-skip-and-a-jump quality, but it is not showing off and it is not naïve. Nor does it carry sinister or surreal undertones. This sense of light-hearted play may have been inherited to some extent from Ben Nicholson, who on at least one recorded occasion joined in with the very young Kate and her older brother Jake, playing a game that involved rolling a ball around one of his reliefs. “Fun” was a very allowable part of making art, however serious that art may be. The titles attached to her paintings have a poetry and humour that hint at this lightness of touch. These titles are not really frivolous or naïve, but have a kind of innocence: “Spring Frolic” and “Snatched in Short Eddies” in this exhibition join such earlier titles like “Fancy Free” and “Skip and a Twist” and “Hay Diddle Diddle.”

“Liquid Sky” is another title that perfectly conveys one aspect of her work which connects the earlier, comparatively realistic paintings in this show with the later, more abstract ones. In these early landscapes, she is without question a wonderful and exciting painter of skies. She relishes the ever-moving changes of cloud and light. Her skies are not looming or ominous; they are filled with obvious delight as if she is saying “Here is a realm where the very act of painting is set at liberty, where observation and imagination can mingle in a free cosmic dance.”

When her images have been most successful – like the marvellous “Sun Dance” in this exhibition – Kate Nicholson has managed to invest her paintings with a remarkable balancing act. On one hand they seem evanescent and elusive. On the other they have bold strength and distinct permanence. The originality of her achievement deserves far greater recognition.

Christopher Andreae April 2013
Catalogue Kate Nicholson Painting from the Artist’s Studio
First published in 2013 by Belgrave St Ives



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