by Humphrey Spender
bromide print, circa 1935
8 in. x 6 3/8 in. (203 mm x 162 mm)
Sitterback to top
- Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Artist; son of Sir William Nicholson. Sitter in 6 portraits, Artist of 1 portrait.
Artistback to top
- Humphrey Spender (1910-2005), Photographer, artist and designer. Artist of 15 portraits, Sitter in 3 portraits.
This portraitback to top
Spender accepted the commission to photograph Nicholson for Harper's Bazaar as it meant both meeting him, and visiting the Mall Studios in Hampstead. Spender was determined to attempt 'something different' and arrived with lights and tripods. 'Nicholson was quite a vain man and appreciated the trouble being taken' recalled Spender. The portrait takes inspiration from Nicholson’s painted compositions, and the photograph is a study of formal and spatial relationships. The extremes of light and shadow, the silhouette of Nicholson cast on the wall behind, the use of the mirror as a framing device and the ambiguous context owe much to the Surrealist movement in photography, which was current at the time.
Linked publicationsback to top
- Smartify image discovery app
- Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 217 Read entry
Throughout his life Ben Nicholson, the son of the painter and graphic artist Sir William Nicholson, was fascinated, both as painter and sculptor, by the artistic possibilities of still-life. The 1930s were a period of exploration and experimentation for him, as his paintings edged towards sculpture: towards abstract forms and textured surfaces. In 1932 he visited the Paris studios of Brancusi, Braque and Arp, with his future wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In 1934, while a member of Unit One, which he had founded with Paul Nash, he met Piet Mondrian, and produced the first of his series of 'white reliefs', with which his name is especially associated. In these he created a form of abstracted still-life of great purity and harmoniousness, in which basic geometrical shapes are united in subtly modulated planes.
Humphrey Spender, brother of the writer Stephen Spender, made his reputation in the 1930s working as a photo-journalist for The Daily Mirror and Picture Post, and as official photographer to Mass Observation. He photographed Nicholson at The Mall Studios in Hampstead in this period, though in a style which is the antithesis of reportage. His portrait is, like Nicholson's own work, a painstakingly contrived study in formal and spatial relationships, in which the artist appears in a moment's ambiguity to become part of one of his own compositions.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 459
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
Events of 1935back to top
Current affairsStanley Baldwin starts his third term as Prime Minister after Ramsay Macdonald resigns due to ill health. Coincidentally, Baldwin's first term in office also came about when the Prime Minister of the time, Bonar Law, stepped down due to illness in 1923.
Art and scienceRobert Watson-Watt demonstrates Radar, showing how an aircraft can be tracked by detecting radio waves reflected off it. During the war, Watson-Watt established a network of machines and operators that helped detect the approach of enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain.
Penguin publishes its first paperback books, making reading more portable and affordable to a wider audience.
InternationalItaly invades Abyssinia. The invasion of the country now known as Ethiopia was part of Mussolini's plan to create an Italian Empire. It was also an attempt to avenge Abyssinia's victory over the Italian army at Adowa in 1896.
Germany introduces conscription, breaking the disarmament clause of the Treaty of Versailles.
Do, draw and make!
Do, draw and make!
From building dens to food faces – enjoy our Playful Portraits activities and find out about some brilliant people!
Activities for children and families inspired by three healthcare heroes from our Collection.
Downloadable and web based resources to support learning at home linked to art, history, citizenship and literacy.
Tell us more
Framed & unframed prints
Choose your favourite portrait from our Collection as a framed or unframed print for your home.