A monumental painting by British artist Ben Nicholson’s will lead Sotheby’s Evening Sale of Modern & Post-War British Art on 11th July 2013. The canvas (Mycenae-axe-blue) was a highlight of the Tate’s celebrated 1964 exhibition Painting & Sculpture of a Decade, 54-64, this magisterial abstract work is on the scale of his Festival of Britain commission and akin to his celebrated work that forms part of Tate Britain’s recent rehang.* Measuring four and a half metres across – it is a seminal piece from the years Nicholson spent in Switzerland, a period described as the ‘Indian Summer’ of the artist’s career. Estimated at £1 -£1.5 million, it will be offered for sale for the first time since it was purchased in New York in 1966 by the American industrialist and social activist Joseph Irwin Miller. A philanthropist and patron, Miller gifted the work later that year to the Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis. Today, it will be sold to benefit CTS’s programmes relating to religion and the arts, which form part of the seminary’s distinctive and enduring mission.
Alongside Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson was at the very forefront of the avant- garde in Britain. Invited to join the Paris-based association Abstraction-Création in the 1930s, he developed friendships with the leading lights of European Modernism, including Picasso, Braque, Calder and Moholy-Nagy, exhibiting his works alongside these artists in New York, Amsterdam and Paris. By the outbreak of WWII, Nicholson’s standing was such that it was at his invitation that Mondrian moved to Hampstead – a centre for the vibrant community of European intellectuals in London. His reputation spread across the Atlantic, with many of the most important private and institutional collections in America jostling to acquire his work.
Nicholson had already achieved huge acclaim around the world by the time he painted Oct 61 (Mycenae- axe-blue) in the seventh decade of his life. He had recently left St.Ives, the small Cornish coastal town that had been his home for twenty years, to embark on a new life in the mountains of Switzerland – a move that had a profound effect on his art. Removed from the internal politics and rivalries within the British art world and exposed to a landscape he had known in his youth, his works adopted a new expansiveness and magisterial style. As demonstrated in Oct 61 (Mycenae-axe-blue), his forms became more monumental and his palette became simpler, he began to use a new range of rich, natural colours – a remarkable new departure for an artist already into his seventh decade.