Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Volume II, Work Since 1947, Lund Humphries, London, 1956, cat no.137, illus b/w
Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson Paintings, The Little Library of Art, Methuen, London, 1962, p8
The fifties were one of the most successful decades of Nicholson’s career. The confines of war had meant that after its end in 1945, Nicholson, once a pre-eminent abstractionist, was now virtually unknown. However, thanks largely to the support of The British Council and Herbert Read, by the end of the fifties, Nicholson was positioned as a leading British abstract painter on an international stage. Under the leadership of Lilian Somerville, the British Council Fine Arts Advisory Committee at that time numbered amongst its influential members Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, Philip Hendy, John Rothenstein and Philip James. Between 1946 and 1960, Nicholson exhibited in forty British Council exhibitions around the world, and by 1956 his works had been acquired by twenty museum collections abroad. His long-standing association with Herbert Read, who was fast becoming one of the most influential writers on twentieth century art, was to be of particular value in raising Nicholson’s profile. As the artist acknowledged in a letter to Patrick Heron, ‘What the contemporary art movement in England wld have done without him (& what Barbara Henry & I would have done in the 30s without his active support) I don’t know – the whole landscape wld have been changed too slowly’ (sic) (letter dated 30th December 1968).
In 1955, the year that this work was painted, the Tate Gallery held a retrospective of Nicholson's work. Whilst in Britain, his paintings were still met with some trepidation critically, internationally they had never been better received. In May 1955 (Carved Forms and Indigo), 1955, Nicholson has returned to a lateral spread of objects which, in the words of Jeremy Lewinson, ‘somewhat dissipates the object quality of the motifs while at the same time setting up greater rhythmic variety and visual rhymes.’ (Jeremy Lewinson, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1991, p21).
Nicholson had made a link between the still life and architecture and the principles of architecture; balance and structure are evident here in the harmonic relation of one motif to one another in this work.
In the mid to late fifties Nicholson was once again interested in reliefs. Here the simplified forms and tonal values of the still life objects are presented almost as reliefs, their whiteness rising out of the indigo background. Pencil line is still present, but unlike works such as Feb 2-54, 1954 where it is used to outline each motif or form, here it is used to pick out details such as the ellipse of the vase and the handles of the cups.
Nicholson made no distinction between representational and non-representational painting, claiming that the painting he liked was both musical and architectural, expressing a relationship between form, tone and colour regardless of his classification as abstract or representational. In this work one can see all of these elements at play, more simplified, in terms of composition, than earlier still-lifes from the fifties which present complex figurations of interlaced lines, May 1955 (Carved Forms) aims to achieve a sense of poise and balance.