Nicholson painting kept a closely-guarded family secret

A painting by a Scottish artist described as a “pivotal” work of modern British art was passed off as a child’s artwork for decades in order to deter thieves.

A closely-guarded family secret, ‘1932 (profile: Venetian red)’ by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) hung in the living room of an Edinburgh home for 64 years. It was given as a wedding present to Elisabeth and Harold Swan in 1951 by Elisabeth’s father, Jim Ede. A friend of the artist, Ede was a young curator at the Tate Gallery before he went on to create Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge University’s gallery of modern art. 

Unable to afford insurance on the painting, Elisabeth instructed her children not to reveal the true identity of the artist and visitors to the Swan family home were told it had been painted by one of her sons, Martin. Elisabeth and Harold’s granddaughter, Eileadh Swan, told The Times how her grandparents relied on the abstract and naive quality of the artwork to perpetuate the ruse. “The joke was that we couldn’t insure them because they were so expensive so we were told as children that they were done by a cousin in art college”, Eileadh recalls.

Valued at around £250,000, the painting has been acquired for the nation by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where it was unveiled yesterday (10 October) with members of Nicholson’s family present. The acquisition was made via the “acceptance in lieu of tax” scheme, which allows UK taxpayers to opt out of paying inheritance tax by transferring works of art into public ownership.

One of Britain’s most distinguished 20th century artists, Nicholson painted the work in the first year of his relationship with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The painting is considered to have marked a turning point in the artist’s career and to reflect the influence of Hepworth as well as Nicholson’s new friendship with sculptor Henry Moore.

Paintings by Nicholson have previously sold at auction for millions of pounds. ‘Sept 53 (Balearic)’ sold for £1.3 million at Christie’s New York in 2011 and ‘Fiddle and Spanish Guitar’ sold for £2.9 million at Christie’s in 2012.


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