The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Advanced Collection search

Ben Nicholson

© National Portrait Gallery, London

 Like voting
is closed

Thanks for Liking

Please Like other favourites!
If they inspire you please support our work.

Buy a print Make a donation Close
  • Buy a print
  • Use this image
  • ShareShare this

Ben Nicholson

by Humphrey Spender
bromide print, circa 1935
8 in. x 6 3/8 in. (203 mm x 162 mm)
Purchased, 1977
Primary Collection

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

Placesback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1935back to top

Current affairs

Stanley 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 science

Robert 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.


Italy 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.

Tell us more back to top

Can you tell us more about this portrait? Spotted an error, information that is missing (a sitter’s life dates, occupation or family relationships, or a date of portrait for example) or do you know anything that we don't know? If you have information to share please complete the form below.

If you require information from us, please use our Archive enquiry service. You can buy a print of most illustrated portraits. Select the portrait of interest to you, then look out for a Buy a Print button. Prices start at £6 for unframed prints, £25 for framed prints. If you wish to license this image, please use our Rights and Images service.

Please note that we cannot provide valuations.

We digitise over 8,000 portraits a year and we cannot guarantee being able to digitise images that are not already scheduled.

What can you tell us?close

There are occasions when we are unsure of the identity of a sitter or artist, their life dates, occupation or have not recorded their family relationships. Sometimes we have not recorded the date of a portrait. Do you have specialist knowledge or a particular interest about any aspect of the portrait or sitter or artist that you can share with us? We would welcome any information that adds to and enhances our information and understanding about a particular portrait, sitter or artist.


How do you know this? Please could you let us know your source of information.

* Permission to publish (Privacy information)
Privacy Informationclose

The National Portrait Gallery will NOT use your information to contact you or store for any other purpose than to investigate or display your contribution. By ticking permission to publish you are indicating your agreement for your contribution to be shown on this collection item page. Please note your email address will not be displayed on the page nor will it be used for any marketing material or promotion of any kind.

Please ensure your comments are relevant and appropriate. Your contributions must be polite and with no intention of causing trouble. All contributions are moderated.

Your Emailclose

Contributions are moderated. We'll need your email address so that we can follow up on the information provided and contact you to let you know when your contribution has been published.

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!

Get Creative

Healthcare Heroes

Activities for children and families inspired by three healthcare heroes from our Collection.

Learn together

Learning resources

Downloadable and web based resources to support learning at home linked to art, history, citizenship and literacy.

Get learning