Nicholson's silvery atmosphere of sea and sky

Light is the main subject of this painting (and many others) by the English artist Winifred Nicholson (1893 to 1981). Silvery atmosphere of sea and sky are suffused with clear light, and this extends to more solid features that, rather than obstructing the light, are enlivened and colored by it. This artist saw a landscape as form and space composed of the gentle nuances and shifts of the spectrum.

Nicholson loved to paint looking out into the light through the window of a house, as if the house were her inner eye.

If a windowsill intervened, perhaps with flowers or collected objects on it, they were rendered emollient by the incoming tide of light. Dividing lines and edges that another artist might have perceived sharply are soft and translucent.

For Nicholson, distant island and hill are just slightly firmer clouds. The shine and sweep of the sea are the sky in liquid form, identified perfectly with the vital movements of her brush. The beach is a watery margin and - in this particular painting - the transparent vases and the luminiferous flowers and shells in the foreground are the "near" that defines, by contrast, the unreachable "far."

In her autobiography, poet Kathleen Raine, a friend of Nicholson's, described the artist as belonging "to Cumberland and its luminous grey skies." Her home in Cumbria, northwest England, was on Hadrian's Wall (built by the Romans as defense against the Scots). This was her geographical, perhaps even her visionary, center - a fact emphasized by a current exhibition of her work in Cockermouth, Cumbria.

However, "Shells," reproduced here, was painted on the northwest coast of Scotland. The artist often went there on working trips, including several times in the 1950s with Raine.

They stayed at Sandaig, the remote house belonging to writer Gavin Maxwell, whose classic book "Ring of Bright Water" was still to be written.

The book's title comes from a poem about Sandaig by Raine. She spent much time there collecting shells to decorate the house. It is a safe conjecture that it is these that are celebrated in Winifred Nicholson's painting - a painting itself, indeed, of "bright water."

'Winifred Nicholson, A Cumbrian Perspective,' is at the Castlegate House Gallery, Cockermouth, Cumbria, England, until Nov. 9. There is a catalog of the show.

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