The first works of Ben Nicholson I saw were paintings and reliefs. I felt the same awe towards them as I had felt, when a child, towards the tall, stiff, grey gentlemen who came to tea. But Nicholson's drawings allowed me to relax and begin to understand his work. The drawings seem to me to be quite separate from the paintings. They are not working drawings but ends in themselves. They allow one to discover his humour and to soak up the feelings he draws.
Ben Nicholson is no slave to architecture or nature; he doesn't use the prim vision of my stiff, grey gentlemen but peers around corners and over roofs, capturing the essence of a place, moving his lines and forms to encapsulate a whole field, not just a field seen from one place. He can see the cat around the corner and the horse prancing in a field even though it may be hidden by a hill.
The paper is seldom right-angled and never dead white. Even before the lines are started the paper's tones and curves have begun to reach for the feeling of the place. Then those seeing lines begin -- dark tracks along which the eye runs with pleasure, some of them hard, tight delineators and others wriggling with delight. Usually there are small areas that balance the silent spaces of his drawing, areas buzzing with activity like a child's free scrubble confined and refined into a chosen place. He well knows how, in the silent spaces, those freer regions chatter.
When I first looked at his paintings I was seeking an easier opening than they appeared to give. I found it in his drawings and then in his paintings of the latter 1920s, which were lively and lyrical -- rhythmic poems in paint. From these it was easier to approach his less lavish paintings, versed as I had become in the irreverence and pleasure of his drawings.
Some of the drawings utilize an economy of line that might lead u to think that Ben Nicholson was an ascetic, a kind of bread and water painter, but that image is speedily dispelled when one considers the breadth of his work. It is true that throughout most of his later work there is a denial of any kind of superfluity and a concern to make maximum from minimum, but in the lines he draws there is a sensuous pleasure which expels any idea of self-denial. He is economical but never austere.
It would be more usual to associate feelings for place with Paul Nash than with Ben Nicholson, but Nicholson's quest for light has taken him to Greece and to Cornwall, to Switzerland and to Italy. In each region his drawings reflect the essence of place, not its actual structure or environment but its spirit. They seek to make visible the "invisible."
Few artists have ever produced drawings of the stature of their paintings or sculptures, but some of Nicholson's drawings are great works of art, with all the multivalency of the reliefs and paintings. to him size does not mean importance (some of his best paintings are his smallest); neither is pencil inferior to paint or to a razor-blade scraper. He is a master of media with a craftsman's respect for his tools, producing potent images that are carefully distilled.