to Ben Nicholson

Train to Banks Head

Dear Ben,

. . . I am now on my way up to Cumberland, and the Tate is supposed to becoming tomorrow to fetch all those pictures, I hope without any hitch.

I have now finished my show and Kalman seemed to be pleased. I certainly was. We sold 20 out of 30 pictures, but more than that it was cheering to feel that people understood what I was attempting – not just portraits of flowers, but the light they convey.

Yes, thank you for your letter which I shall keep by me as I start my spring painting. Indeed I have not forgotten Cezanne's looking at things from on top as well as on side - nor Mondrian's horizontal versus vertical – nor Nicholson's circle versus square – (garden versus town – paradise versus city).

But which of these three great painters remember what Matisse opened up? There is a great way along his line of 'Notan' colour light the interplay of the seven rainbow hues so that they create light – so that the picture becomes a lamp - a luminosity – a transparent entity – something so exciting that I for one have no time to bother about how the great masters play with space, with shapes, with measurements and their balances. Colour light docs not mind what kind of space you think of – it is the interpretation of substance and space that colour is dealing with. Fortunately no photo nor even any reproduction will give an idea of what one is after if one follows the rainbow . . . where does it lead? . . .

Love to you, Winifred

I

to Kathleen Raine

Boothby, Cumberland [1958?]

Dear Kathleen,

. . . I have been looking after Father, and also have had a spell of painting in this frost, moon and snow – I like it very much - snow light is magic.

And now here is another cheque to thank you for. I don't mind who has my old picture children, I am so busy with my new ones, but I'm glad that they are playing their part in the cheerfulness of people's lives . . . I would be grateful for the names and addresses of the 5 people who have my pictures and the names of the pictures that they have.

Yes the time at Eigg was a glimpse through and so was a time I had with Ben at Lugano and a time I once had in Paris with myself. I've got accustomed to glimpses-through to vanish and leave nothing but a bittersweet memory behind - which the pictures or poems that were born then only make more poignant.

When the sun is down and not even a moon, one is all doubt whether it will ever rise again – but it does, of its own self – nothing to do with oneself and all one has to do is to be quick not to miss the next glimpse-through. Each one is so different it's easy to miss them.

Thank you for what you say about Father. He has not the least wish to 'go through' – he is very determined to stay here even if only on a slender thread.

Love Winifred

I

to Jake Nicholson [son]

Boothby, Cumberland, October 1953

Dearest Jake,

Your letter makes me write at once – sitting by the fire, Mungo [collie dog] on hearth-rug, 2 cats twined up comfortably in basket. First, isn't it all right to send your letter to Boston? I don't know any other address . . . I have an exhibition of my own fixed at the Leicester Galleries for February, and Grandfather's [George Howard] fixed at Leighton House towards the middle of February. . .

About painting and Christianity – I did not think your account depressing at all. There is bound to come a great movement of expressing beauty – in the highest sense . . . It is not far past the mustard seed stage yet. It will come as it came in Italy after the religious awakening of St Francis, as it came in Holland after the religious awakening of the Protestants who stood out against the tyranny of Spain, as it came in the Elizabethan time after the Bible was revealed. In the past it has never come till about 100 years after the religious renewing of light . . . All the abstract movement of our time has been a wonderful opening of barriers . . .

I have been able to get a glimpse of Life and living power, but I have only been able to express the very simplest first letters of the alphabet of Spirit, something to do with cheerfulness, not even yet joy, far less the full diapason of Truth. But I've done enough to know that it's there just beyond the realm of our consciousness, and I always know that some of us, some humans, will reach it – like the first person to fly the Atlantic after that all can . . .

Whenever I myself find a healing tough going, I put it on to the same procedure as a painting – let it come with inspiration and follow that inspiration and do whatever it says, or pray whatever it says; sometimes surprising things and always unexpected. You get at the back of its resistance that way, just as you get at the back of ugliness, say in a factory town – by seeing it as a picture . . .

We have got to express – and we artists in vision, in 'beholding', have got an important work to do . . . because man has spread material handiwork over the world, and a great deal of this handiwork seems to deface the handiwork of God. Therefore the whole creation has got to be beheld as good, as beautiful, not only the universe of nature, but the universe that the hands of men are busily making out of the natural universe. This has never been an urgent need until this age of the Machine – what man made was infinitesimal until now. Now it is an imperative demand upon us that we heal our cities, our fellow people and their homes, and the work of their hands from the idolatry of money makingness which is ugliness. . . .

Kathleen [Raine] has just won the Arts council award for the best book of poems printed during the last 3 years, and well she deserves it. I have always said that they were the best poems that have been published lately, and it’s good that other people say so too. We reread them last night, [Jake's] Grandfather [Charles Roberts], Froska [Munster – Kit Wood's friend], Jane [Harrison – Jake's first wife] and I . . . Isn't it strange that I have been privileged to know intimately, the 'best' painter of our time Ben [Nicholson], and the 'best' poet [Kathleen Raine], and to neither of them have I been able to give – hand across – more than half of this marvellous wonder that we have been given – and because they have known it so far and not accepted the whole, they both get their lives into such tangles and seem to suffer such miseries – out of which no amount of artistic genius can extricate them. It is for this reason that the virtuous leaders . . . do not value art, not realizing that healing without art is equally as bad as art without healing. For healing without art is like the man who had the devil cast out of him, but having no creative energy to fill the void, went and got 7 devils to fill it up. Suppose all the world were healed of sickness and we had nothing to do – healing first but then Praise, which is the true name for Art.

Love to you from Mother

I

to Jake Nicholson [son]

Dear Jake,

I liked seeing what you are up to in your painting discovery. I was interested in the wedge-shaped abstracts and also in the abstract form point of view that you bring to your heads and to your nudes. I found the quality of significant form more in the heads than in the nudes - although I found it there too.

I should have said that you should not work along the lines of making your things more 'correct' to visual appearance, but should work along the line on which you have travelled a good way already, of getting the relationship of one shape to another as an organic living whole, whether it be – ear to forehead – shoulder to foot – chair to table – or chair to thigh. In a picture there is every bit as much relationship between the chair and the hand, as there is between the elbow and the wrist – or between the sky and the flower – or between the curve and the angle, which you get so well in your abstracts.

But the realistic teaching with regard to heads and figures bothers you? Does it? It certainly bothered me so much that I still can very seldom find that relationship of abstract space shapes in a person – I can find it in the relationship of cloud to flower pot, or mountain peak to nearby shadow, when one does find it, it is the point where painting touches ‘spiritual reality' – the fundamental essence of things, beneath, behind, beyond, and before, visual experience. You don't find 'spiritual reality' in the visual appearance of things which is always a 'surface' appearance – you don't find it in anatomical correctness – you don't even find it in facial expression or gesture - although that may be pleasing (or unpleasing). If you can find the true juxtaposition or relationship of anything to anything else – it's there at once. Do you agree?

I think you must – for I find you had the beginnings of what I am talking about in that large sideways head which is in the picture of yours that remains most vividly in my remembrance.

Love from Mother

I

to Ben Nicholson

Plane to Amsterdam
To see the Rembrandt Exhibition , c.1969?

Dear Ben,

How nice to find a letter from you as soon as I arrived in Paulton Square…

            That is splendid that you think of coming to Hampstead. London just now I find stimulating as everything is in change and lots of things one did not like are on the way out. Other things that one does not like are on the way in – but that I find a challenge for painting as I like very much to select and choose between them and see what they are leading us to – and underground under all this change great things are about to occur, breakthrough not only to the Moon but to understanding what is underneath us all.

            For instance, I have just lately found a relationship between the rainbow scale and the shape scale – and so shape and form have at last and high time too become interesting to me. I had a time when things opened out at St.Ives. I had a small room with the sea breaking under my window near to the quay near Kate’s house. I dug up lots of things in Kate’s garden and went with her to a tropical plant nursery and bought many marvellous flowers that we planted in her garden. She is full of beans and good painting.

            One afternoon she said, ‘Now we go to the Penwith, Barbara [Hepworth] is having a private view’, so off we went and at the door as we were going in so was Barbara, and I stood back a pace, and she put out her hand and gave me a real embrace – a real happy genuine one – I was so pleased. Also she looked a little better, though very pale frail and unable to walk much. When I had seen her before some years ago at the Tate, she had looked at the end of her tether. In fact so much so that I had felt I must do a thing about it, and searched my thoughts for what I could say that was constructive. I said, ‘I enjoyed seeing you sculpture in New York. It looked wonderful in its Bronze Age rugged evocations against and in contrast to the mathematical dogmatic United Nations building – all straight rigid lines and plate glass.’ I could not continue my theme because the Queen arrived at that moment with her cortège up the steps, and I discovered to my shame that I in an old short day dress had stepped into an alcove when I saw Barbara looking so ‘gone’ to talk to her, and it was the reception committee with Norman Reid and Lady Reid and all the big-wigs – I evaporated myself into the wall – and I have not seen Barbara from that day until I saw her coming into the Penwith.

…The sun is just rising over the most wonderful cloudscape. We left Heathrow about 6 o’clock this morning.

            Lovely if you come to London, I feel that a fine horizontal studio is waiting for you.

Love from Winifred.

I

to Jake Nicholson [son]

Sandaig, Glenelg, Ross-shire, 1952

Dear Jake,

This place looks even more beautiful this year in stormy weather, and is even harder to paint. The high mountains shroud themselves and blot themselves out with white cloud, with black cloud, with drifting sunshine. The sea is silver, is black, is azure, is lead, is white with sea horses, is not visible at all.

            Kathleen [Raine] makes the house very gay with dozens of bunches of wild mountain flowers and we have a good fire of sea driftwood. I have painted 4 pictures this week – rather repetitions of last year’s themes but perhaps better – I hope so. I think one has but to persevere and the themes themselves evolve. There is no work to do here, a few pleasant household occupations. Our meals take no time and the daily routine flows as effortlessly as the river flowing round our house.

            The new shepherd is a piper and a very good one, and I hope to go up to the lighthouse keeper’s house and paint him piping on Wednesday…We can get more easily to the lighthouse keeper’s croft now, for we have got a rope across the river, from alder tree to alder, then when the river rises with its sudden floods we have something to hold on to. How hard it pushes against one’s wellingtons. And always the peaks of Ben Sgriol are wrapped in cloud and mysterious rain, and Eigg a far away blue island of the blest out on the horizon of our sound, is bathed in tranquil sunlight.

            I have been very happy painting – I like painting. I’m coming to an end of my canvases. I wonder if I can get to any village and find hardboards. We have found a very good kind of soup we make out of sorrel and nettles and potatoes – a change from tins. The supply of driftwood on the beach never diminishes and we have a crackling fire. I painted Kathleen sitting beside it sewing a Nancy curtain, with a large bold grey black singing kettle on the hearth. But many of my schemes are the same ones. I find no end to them. Why seek new themes? No flowers or birds do? Why not the same – happily the same?

Love to you from Mother.

I

to Kathleen Raine

Connecticut, America

Dearest Kathleen [Raine],

Two letters from you…It is snowing – has been all last night and all today – the tracks we made in the campus are all obliterated – the turnpike is silent, no cars go out till it stops and the great army of snowploughs marshal out. We shall have a fall of 23 inches they predict on the radio. So I have time to write to you, in this white smothering silent cold. What do I find in America? Well, Jake said before I left, that anything one expected of this vast continent one would find different, and that is so.

            I expected – well so much …I expected an interest in painting ideas. I find only an interest in academic ‘culture’, the commercial value of pictures – ugly museums that scrape off the lustre of the old masters, and a desire for repotted culture that comes from the old world…

            I have found vital things – one in the conventional respectability of Washington, and two in the wild alluring, forbidding materialistic wicked city of New York – which I find very beautiful and black – lighted high to the heavens. Before I write you another letter I shall hope to have found more, but talk of needles in haystacks, the distances are immense, the expenses of moving round are enormous. Everywhere there are closed doors to open…

            We did some painting in the coral strand of Puerto Rico – under immense difficulties, for even topical pink hibiscus flowers full of lizards and shiny black hummingbirds, and tropical shells by green lagoons with great 50ft waves on the outer coral reefs, loose their magic when along with the shells the sea places upon the white sand old tin cans and refuse of an unhappy civilization, the mixture or unmixture of ex-slaves with heartless pleasure seekers – and one can watch how wise the sea itself is and how it lays the rubbish alongside the marvels of the shells and coral ferns, so tenderly, so impartially, and then ripples them all away just as tenderly just as impartially. All humans are unhappy there, only vegetation dominates and shows off – coconut palm, banana tree fern, bushes of lilies, and forest trees of scarlet blooms – all full of little lizard, the old old dragons of another world.

 Love to you from Winifred.

I

to Andrew Nicholson [son]

Isle of South Uist, Hebrides, Scotland, [1950?]

Dearest Andrew,

This is the place after my heart. I wonder if you would like it. Not a tree, not a bush. But grey boulders, grey rocks, grey stones, grey mountains, and bog in between. In the bog, lochs with water lilies and rare ferns that love the black peaty soil. The sea full of grey mysterious islands and rocks, seals and seabirds. White glistening beaches and transparent sea all the way across to Eriskay. Blue mountains of Barra to the west, and the Cuillins far away snow covered to the south. There are 5 other cottages in Glendale and no road nearer than 3 miles. One comes by boat and then walks. The family consists of a father and mother, crofters, and 3 sailor sons, and a daughter who goes to college in Glasgow, and an adopted orphan – everyone sings, everyone talks Gaelic. There are 2 collies, 3 puppies, 2 black cats, 4 cows, 3 calves, innumerable hens and cocks and chickens, and the point is to try to keep them out of the cottage.

            Peat fire, water carried from a well, everything as primitive as you want. Everyone spins, dyes wool with wonderful dyes from lichens, yellow iris root, water lily root, blue or peat fire soot which makes yellow, and thus weaves into beautiful tweed.

            This croft has this tiny white cottage on a rock, 2 rooms and 3 attics. It has a minute meadow by the stream, all kingcups, fern, orchids, and ragged robin, a small cow pasture all yellow iris, two thousand acres of bog and mountain – for which it pays £3 a year, and seems to just subsist on it, if all the men go to fish and to be sailors, and the girls make tweed. Everyone is happy.

Over about 2 miles of bog, there are 2 old ladies who live in a one-roomed white cottage, thatched. They have a wonderful white calf, and a red duck, the room is full of fleeces drying after the dying. They can make a crotal dye from lichen off the rocks that is browner and purpler than anyone else, and O what wonderful songs they sing, with this queer Hebridean cadence and modes that sounds like Chinese singing. They are both very small like fairy women, and the walls of their house are 4 feet thick – and they have soft white hair like silk and they are almost bent double with old age and their eyes are bright blue and O, the laughter and the jokes they make.

We went to church at Eriskay on St. Peter’s day, everyone is a Catholic, over in the boat to Eriskay. All the men in sailor’s navy blue jerseys and the women in black with wonderful shawls over their heads, knitted by themselves in strange patterns…

I have painted 9 pictures and enjoyed myself bathing and basking on the warm sand. It has rained once, and the sun has shone gold and the sea has glittered blue each day and every day. All the work runs very smoothly and easily. Kathleen [Raine] has written some good poems, and I have made friends with a lot of wild seabirds, watching them fly and soar and sink on to the sea – the great black-backed gulls are tremendous fellows even carrying off lambs, the eider ducks are very charming and talk in confidential tones, the oystercatchers are brave and chase the great black-backed gulls away when they come to steal their eggs. There are hundreds of darting sand martins that nest in burrows on the river’s banks. Ravens in the crags to the right of us, buzzards nest in the crags to the left, and the Lighthouse Island is full of arctic turns – the most graceful and beautiful of all. Kathleen saw a whale spouting in Loch Horn, and I saw some chicks of the sandpipers lying on the shingle and pretending to be dead until I took my eye off them, and then the family scuttled to the next large stone.

Love to you, from Mother

I

to Jake and Jane Nicholson [son and daughter-in-law]

Delphi, Greece, May 1st 1961

Dear Jake and Jane,

We are having a fine time…The sunshine is very wonderful and the colour of everything marvellous. You must both of you come here for your next holiday. The journey is expensive but one can find small hotels like this one, which costs 5 shillings each a night and is very clean and white, and one can eat black olives and goats’ milk yoghurt and home-made bread and cheese for a song – wonderful Greek dishes of who knows what and olive oil for several songs.

            First we went to Mykonos, an island with tiny white fisher villages where they weave; and then an island called Delos where Apollo was born and is indeed the birthplace of who knows what, and a beautiful delicate marble columns and everywhere poppies deep carbuncle luminous and ferocious. And then we went to Sounion, a temple of white Ionic columns dedicated to Poseidon, the sea god, on a headland looking over the Saronic Gulf and the Aegean Sea.

            The sea is emerald near land and then aquamarine, so transparent you can see golden gleaming transparencies to the very depths, possibly buried sunken treasure (probably tins). Out in the open it is the darkest blues you can imagine, the Greeks called it the ‘wine-dark’ sea. But the hills which look brown bare from the bus, when you tread on them, are wild flowers, perfume of honey and thyme, like a carpet – every kind and colour of flowers and all wonderful shapes, clear and definite like everything in Greece – blue harebells and pink wild gladioli like lilies and the starry asphodels and on the red earth companies of pink pale convolvulus – pentagons looking up to the azure of the sky – all leaves grey and downy. I never thought of such flowers or could imagine them in their wild profusion – campanulas like starfish on the rocks, mauve marigolds and golden ones – and here the mountains a yellow, lemon yellow haze of a tall bush like a golden glowing archangel.

            This place, Delphi, is on high mountains, Mount Parnassos behind up, and a great gorge in front, below a sea of olives, leading down to the sea itself. To the west a range of blue clear cut mountains, snow capped. Our hotel perched like a swallow’s nest on a precipice below, and a precipice of red rocks above one short street of ‘Tourist Traps’, and a great many charabanc tours come to see the oracles and the temples. We just glance at antiquities and then escape to the mountains.

            We have been painting in a valley with emerald corn terraces and almond groves. Black snakes glide over the hot rocks and golden eagles soar in the sky. Herds of lively black goats graze on the yellow archangel flowers and look far healthier than all those perfumed ones in England. They have a sun baked shepherd who calls to them in absolute goat language and the valley is musical with the sound of their bells.

            But most of all I am interested in the illumination to the Bible. Mars Hill in Athens is a wonderful place and brings it all to life so clearly. When you see the great gleaming white Parthenon above you in all its pristine stupendous beauty, and think of the courage it must have taken to say, ‘God dwelleth not in Temples made with hands.’ And again among all these Pagan temples and their treasures, the Psalmist that said, ‘careth not for burnt offerings – and sacrifices’, was outraging his world and all its religious tenets far more than we are when we run the gauntlet of the Health Service.

            How brave and revolutionary one must be to find and to voice a spiritual truth – and yet these early Greeks were seeking – over the oracle-temple here, where the sibyl priestess delivered her cryptic superstitious pronouncements, without which no one would go to was or undertake any other project – was written, ‘Know Thyself’…

            Delphi is full of thunderstorms which echo and roll among the red precipices.

Love from Mother.

I

to Andrew and Rosemary Nicholson [son and daughter-in-law]

Skopelos, Greece, May 12th 1961

Dearest Andrew and Rosemary,

This hotel is surrounded by lemon trees, madonna lilies, roses in profusion and abundance of every colour and perfume, white vine pergolas, the young tendrils of the vines very pale green against the blue of the sky and the aquamarine of the sky. White fishing town with white Byzantine churches one above the other on the rocks above the harbour where the fishing boats come in. Every sort of flower in abundance and intensity of colour, trees of pelargoniums, orange blossom, arum lilies. Every little house has a huge bunch of flowers in a small dark doorway. Every young woman carries a large bunch wherever she goes, and all the dark old women pick their flowers and give them to us, carnations, geraniums, flax, bugloss, as we pass. We greet them in the few Greek salutations that we know and they pat us on the back and pinch our clothes. We are the only tourists on the island.

            The old black-clothed patroness of our hotel speaks no English or anything but Greek, sign language and laughter, and when we get into difficulties we have to get the help of one of the old sailors from the harbour. ‘O yes Mam I’ve been to the Bahamas, nice town Nassau’ – that is the old man with the rags and donkey who sells potatoes. ‘O yes Mam I’ve been to Vladivostock and to Liverpool and to Jacksonville, all those places’ – that is the man who sells Turkish cakes made of walnuts and honey. We go down to the waterside and watch all the fish being brought in, and have one cake each afternoon. After our sleeps – everyone sleeps all afternoon when the son is hot – get up at 5.30 – shut all shops from 12 till 4 o’clock – everyone goes to sleep – open again till dark about 8, when the sun sinks behind the mountains and the electric light flickers on for 3 hours in the smart art of the town, but it is not bright enough to see to read.

            There are n cars on the island and no wheeled vehicles at all – how could they get up these steps and ladder stony roads? But there are many white mules and they go down to the harbour and are loaded, when the boats come in from the mainland, with every conceivable commodity – 50 beehives – 10 iron bedsteads – sacks and drums of who knows what. Our hotel costs 5 shillings a night and has ancient beauty but no modern convenience.

            We eat delicious meals of vegetables in olive oil, artichokes, little pumpkins, and beans of every description, at night we have yoghurt and honey in our bedroom. Kate’s is a large room with 4 windows and 4 empty iron bedsteads, which are now covered with her pictures. I have 2 windows and 2 iron bedsteads, a wooden table, a chair, a high ceiling of olive green wood – and the scent of all the flowers coming in – a terrace of white marble looking over the sea, the mountains and the white town with all its white domes of tiny churches, most of them the size of a bathroom, very white and beautiful outside, inside little caves full of ikons painted, and silver and gold and little coloured swinging lamps and high thin tallow candles, and always a bunch of arums and crimson roses on the floor – inner caves covered with tinsel curtains and coloured fringes – all feeling very very old and only just out of the earth – 3 chairs sort of high stools up each side, sometimes a very old lady with a black headdress, but otherwise no congregation and indeed no seeming need for one. The black-robed priest stands facing the mysterious altar and intones strange eastern chants in ancient Greek and minor mode.

            In Mykonos, an island about this size that we went to, there are 365 churches. We have not counted all these but one keeps finding them. Sailors built them and go on building them when they are saved from shipwreck. Some are hundreds of years old and very dilapidated and very beautiful.

            You’d think it was difficult to paint them all joined up as they are with the white houses and crowds of people and children, but not at all, when they see you at work they come and look and then pass on with their great water jars that they have collected from the wells. They quietly place a rose by one’s side – or slip out a magazine ‘from my friend in America, you might like to read it, I’ve read it all’. It’s very old and tattered – and if a child should dare to attempt to put out a shy finger and touch the blue of one’s sky, one need not expostulate for there comes out a cry from unseen watchers on the balconies above or the terraces below or the man knocking down the campanile overhanging one…

            There’s someone singing to itself so beautifully and on and on. It’s Sunday evening and I don’t think I have given you in this letter any of the magic of this island which grows upon one the longer one is here. It is a contentment, a blessing which seems to be upon all its happy people. The bread that they make with their hands and the goats that they tend and the peaceful happy children. Sometimes in the evening under the olive trees all in flowers, with the scent of the sunbaked hillsides and a gentle breeze over a smiling blue ocean, it feels like a blessing over the whole island – as if it were a holy place that people had loved longtime past, forgotten people, a forgotten past, the present people very poor, very simple, perfectly contented.

Love from Mother – love to you all – to Frances, Kitto and Nameless

 

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