There’s an exhibition currently on at London’s Courtauld Gallery that compares the works Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson produced when these giants of modern art worked alongside each other in 1930s Hampstead.
Meanwhile, up at Durham Art Gallery, there’s an exhibition of paintings by an artist who was greatly admired and respected by both Mondrian and Nicholson, yet who remained virtually unknown when compared with his two illustrious friends.
John Cecil Stephenson was born into an unrefined working class family in Bishop Auckland in 1889. After a providential education at Darlington Technical College and Leeds School of Art, he moved to London, first studying at the RCA, then the Slade, finally lecturing in architectural design at the Northern Polytechnic, Holloway, from 1922 to 1955.
But it was in the early 1930s, when mingling with the critic Herbert Read’s famous “gentle nest of artists” in Hampstead, that Stephenson began painting the abstract works that were to make him probably the first English exponent of the genre.
So what are his paintings all about? All I can say is that when I first saw some of them I immediately realised I’d bestowed too much veneration upon Nicholson. Stephenson’s abstractions have an originality about them that make them something truly special. For me he’s the first abstractionist to bring a real sense of beauty to the simplest geometric forms. His triangles are my obsessive doodle made art.
And so comes the obvious question of why, until now, the works of this hugely talented artist have been virtually ignored and unrecognised. The answer lies mainly with Stephenson himself. His working class background very much constrained him, preventing him from promoting himself, an imperative in London’s pre-war avant-garde art scene.
Now is our chance to finally give him the recognition he always deserved.
by Richard Woollen, guest author
Sketch No. 8 (1937)
images thanks to : op-art
Painting : Design For The Festival Of Britain
photo thanks to : gac