Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Banks Head – Cumbrian Landscape)Angela Verren Taunt

As I enter Downing College’s Heong Gallery I am struck by its resemblance to Kettle’s Yard. A crisp, unencumbered space with cavernous windows that betray the boundary between interior and exterior, it is serene; sparse yet intimate, just like Kettle’s Yard. Moving through the entrance, I am first met with Downing’s own John Constable piece, View from Golding Constable’s House at East Bergholt, c. 1800, a sweeping panoramic view of the landscape surrounding his place of birth. Heong Gallery curator Rachel Rose Smith explains: “his oeuvre, like his life, connects different places through the lens of experience”.

This statement holds true for the exhibition as a whole, each of the works exploring the notion of place and space from a collection of artists comprising Winifred Nicholson, her husband Ben Nicholson, and Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood. This collective was to grow and become inspired by Naïve artist Alfred Wallis. In the summer of 1928, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood took a day trip to St Ives and Nicholson recalls stumbling across “an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall, with particularly large nails through the smallest ones. We knocked on the door and inside found Wallis”. This unexpected meeting soon flourished into budding relationships: Wood stayed with Wallis until the end of that year, diligently studying the ex-mariner’s technique, a man who was to become an invaluable source of inspiration for the young Wood. Nicholson took a few of Wallis’ paintings to London, which garnered interest early on and soon led to his correspondence with Kettle’s Yard’s Jim Ede.

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928Kettle's Yard

Ede describes how Wallis painted “with a living rather than an intellectual experience”. His works were painted directly onto cardboard, rendered flat and with a childlike simplicity, using house or boat paint. Accordingly his subject, most frequently the boat as seen in Two Ships and Steamer Sailing Past a Port – Falmouth and St. Anthony lighthouse, (c. 1931), become integrated within the artwork through his choice in paint. He brings his location – to the painting, imbuing it with a sense of the Cornish coastline. The display’s inclusion of handwritten letters from Wallis to Ede, of which over 40 survive, allow some insight into Wallis’ approach to his work: “What I do mosley is what use to bee out of my own memery what we may never see again”. Not often painting his subjects first hand, but instead from memory, Wallis attempts to salvage the past ‘place’ while simultaneously rendering it his own as he funnels it through recollection, and onto the painted surface. Ben Nicholson’s Banks Head – Cumbrian Landscape, 1928, similarly shows a childlike aesthetic and relationship to place; pointy-eared ponies stand awkwardly at angles to the flattened landscape, surrounded by three-pointed trees scattered across the scene in evident brushstrokes, depicting the surrounding countryside of his home. Known for carrying their easels and paints, Ben and Winifred could not travel far encumbered with such tools of their trade.

Instead, the Cumbrian farmlands provided the inspiration for the spontaneous, flat and fresh works they were to produce, within and of their space. Yet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s inscribed pebble KETTLE’S YARD / CAMBRIDGE / ENGLAND IS THE / LOUVRE OF THE PEBBLE, 1995, subverts this motionless perception of space. The pebble itself is inscribed with place, and yet by nature has no fixed foundation, breaking the boundaries of place. Richard Long’s ‘textwork’ With No Direction Known Like a Rolling Stone, 2013, was an exploration into the walking that was the formulation of his prior piece, A Line made for Walking (1967), which probes this very command we have over a space and the need to reconstitute it as our own. And sitting at the midway-point of the exhibition, at the end of the capacious, corridor-like space, it simultaneously divides the movement of the exhibition, and threads them together.

Poet Holly Corfield Carr, whose words were created in response to the artworks on display, repurposes the visuals in order to gain her own understanding and sense of ‘place’. Hauntingly evocative, Corfield Carr exposes the temporal nature of man in space as one that cannot be possessed or preserved. Winifred Nicholson wrote to a friend describing the setting for her work Roman Road (Landscape with Two Houses) (1926), as a place where ‘[t]he wind blows right through your body’, uncontrollable, yet providing a form of whimsical freedom.

The landscapes are then re-experienced by the viewer who implements their own life onto the visuals, rendering a diverse collection of significance. Portraits of Place finally becomes not solely a ‘portrait’ of the place illustrated in the artworks, but within each piece also lies a portrait of the artist behind it, one who is entwined in their landscape. Restored from its original state as an Edwardian stable, Heong Gallery has became a new place within which the works may interact, as the space becomes infused by the paintings themselves. Of Winifred Nicholson’s Seascape (1926), Ede remarked that he had “never seen sea treated in this way, so loose, so bold, so unconcerned with detail”, yet the exhibition itself appears highly concerned with detail, and to great effect. Elegantly balanced between Naïve and Primitive artworks, juxtaposed against the ‘moveable’ artwork of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the exhibition invokes a sense of relief and isolation. It forces one into silence and captures that intrinsic quality of Kettle’s Yard: the need to just sit, and then go back for more 

Portraits of Place is on display at the Heong Gallery from 5th November 2016 – 15th January 2017, Wednesdays 10am-8pm, weekends and Bank Holidays 10am-6pm