The Life and Work of Painter Winifred Nicholson

Having spent the weekend at Cockley Moor, the remote Lakeland home of Helen Sutherland, eccentric patron to artists and poets, it seemed only right to visit an exhibition of the work of one of her proteges - the Cumbrian painter Winifred Nicholson.   Winifred was born and brought up in Cumbria (Cumberland as it was then) and spent most of her life living in a remote farmhouse, Bankshead, not far from Hadrian's Wall.

'I have always lived in Cumberland,'  she wrote.  'The call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of lonely fells is my mystery, and the silver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.'   This is an apt description of much of her painting.

Her origins were very aristocratic - she was the granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle and her childhood was spent running in and out of various stately homes in the North of England. She married fellow painter Ben Nicholson and they had three children before he left her for Barbara Hepworth.  Winifred didn't remarry.

I loved her words in diaries and letters (The Writings of Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber & Faber, 1987).  Her paintings, though I liked them as prints on postcards or images on screen, didn't appeal to me so much in reality and didn't seem as interesting as her writings about painting. Maybe this is a personal thing - I don't do pretty and it's an adjective that could be applied to her paintings - particularly the still lifes.

It's an indoor life she paints - canvases looking out at the world through windows.  Flowers in pots and jars rather than growing naturally outdoors.  The wild Cumbrian landscape on her doorstep rarely makes it onto the canvas, though I loved her seascapes.

Scotland. The sea looking across to Eigg
I was also aware, working through her work chronologically, that there was little sense of development of her art during her lifetime - no feeling of talent being pushed against limits. Nor did the paintings seem to represent the feisty, articulate, very solid character that is apparent from words and photographs.   I wanted these pale and fragile images to be much more.
Charlotte's Shells 1933
But why did I feel like that?  Why couldn't I just accept that that was what she painted and leave it there?  Winifred was a woman of her time and place, not a trail blazing Georgia O'Keefe, or a Frida Kahlo.  She tucked herself away in Cumbria, rather than immersing herself in what was going on outside this little island.  She was inside, looking out. It was her choice.  'I love my loneliness up here on this hillside.  Not that I have not friends up here, but no one to talk to, not about anything that is worth talking about. . . I enjoy their company but they do not notice the painting on the wall, nor that I have hung up the one I have just finished . . . I don't find I need, nowadays, other people's eyes to inspire me.  . . All I need are the expression on the face of a crocus or on the face of the crescent moon waking me up looking in at my window - out of the mist and frost.'  (Letter to Ben Nicholson 1971)

Very rarely - only a handful of times - did she venture into abstraction.

 Cumbria was her great love - as it is mine.  'Sunlight in Cumberland after all the rain, it's like no sunlight anywhere else,'  she wrote, and it's true.  Particularly what she called the 'sideways light' of winter.  But it was summer that was her particular territory, both in word and image.
'The days are so long and lovely one hardly goes to bed.  The ashes are very pale and only just out, the air is fragrant and ethereally clear, and so still that any movement would break it like spun glass.  The only sounds are the mating cry of the curlews.  The earth is covered with sunlight and flowers, and so still and translucent like water.'


  1. Thank you for posting your thoughts on Winifred. The exhibition you saw was focussed on her Cumbrian works and as I result I understand that you felt she stayed in her home county to paint. But there is so much more. She painted in Greece (visiting many many times and enjoying greek myths particularly), the hebrides (again many times) as well as living in France, Switzerland and visiting Morocco and the USA. Enjoy discovering more.


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