Mondrian in London

Reproduced from Studio International, December 1966

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Charles Darwent, who writes for the Independent, is bringing out a book with a similar title in early 2012.

1 From September 1938 to September 1940, when he left for New York taking with him many uncompleted canvases, Piet Mondrian lived and worked in London. Little has been recorded of this period of his life.
Charles Harrison's outline of Mondrian's history during those two years introduces reminiscences by some of Mondrian's friends who were in London at the time. 2

In 1931 Piet Mondrian had been among the founder members of the Paris-based Association Abstraction-Creation. His disciple Marjorie Moss, the stained-glass designer Evie Hone, and Edward Wadsworth were among the British artists whose work was illustrated the next year in the first of the Association's annual Cahiers. In 1933 Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had produced their first truly abstract works, and on a visit to Paris that summer they were invited to join the Association. On the same visit Nicholson met Mondrian for the first time and on his return to Paris the following year he visited him in his studio in the Rue de Depart. In the mid-thirties English painters and sculptors awoke to many of the interests and ideals that had been governing Continental artists through the twenties. Nicholson gained ground faster than any of his English contemporaries and during the years 1934-7 his art developed to a point where it had much in common with Mondrian's both in aim and in quality. In 1936 Nicolette Gray's exhibition Abstract & Concrete illustrated just how close the relationship had become between certain English painters and sculptors and the avant-garde of European abstraction.

Another visitor to Mondrian's studio in 1934 was a young American called Harry Holtzman. Holtzman kept closely in touch with Mondrian and in 1938 began to send him sums of money under pretext of buying paintings which he never intended to receive. Early in September 1938, convinced, after Munich, that war was inevitable and believing that Paris would be the first target for German bombers, Mondrian wrote to Holtzman in New York asking for a formal invitation to the United States which he could produce for the immigration authorities. Naum Gabo had left Paris for London in 1936, spurred by a feeling that London was becoming what Paris was ceasing to be-an environment in which creative work was possible. Mondrian had been in touch with Gabo and Nicholson through his considerable contribution to Circle (published in 1937) which they edited together with Martin. He wrote to them to expect him and left for London on September 21, 1938, on his way, as he believed, to America. Nicholson's first wife Winifred travelled with him across France.

Nicholson, Hepworth and Gabo were living in Hampstead, as were Herbert Read and Henry Moore, and they found Mondrian a studio at 60 Parkhill Road. Nicholson's studio was at the bottom of the garden. Immediately he was installed Mondrian began to work. The classically simple canvases of the early thirties were giving way to more architectonic works built up of taut grids with few, if any, precisely-poised areas of colour. In the finest of these the tense beauty of the earlier works is transmuted on a larger scale into a grander poetry, wider in scope, stable and assured.

At the outbreak of war Mondrian found himself in virtual isolation as his immediate neighbours left London; Gabo, Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth for St Ives, and Henry Moore for Much Hadham. Ironically the blitz came not to Paris but to London. The work which for Mondrian required so great a concentration, had become impossible. London had suddenly become too close to Europe. He wrote to Winifred Nicholson in July 1940, 'Since Paris fell I did no more creative work'. He remained until a bomb destroyed the house next door.

Late in September he left for New York, arriving on October 3, 1940. Sadly he wrote back to a friend, 'For art it was too difficult in London'.
Charles Harrison

Reminiscences of Mondrian
By Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Miriam Gabo, Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo


Winifred Nicholson
When one thought of visiting Mondrian one had to telephone beforehand - no free and easy knocking at his door - this was not because he might be working - he was always at work; but so that he could put on his patent leather shoes and his black striped trousers. His studio was in a noisy street of Paris up many flights. There was no lift, no water, nor heating in it. What there was, was clarity and silence. The silence in which one could compose and create. The clarity did not come from window but from the many canvases of which the studio was full, in all stages of their creation, for he worked at each one, for long periods, considering each charcoal horizontal, each charcoal vertical and moving them an inch or a millimetre one way or another. When at last the positions were settled then there were many coats of white to be applied one after another and only last of all after many months or even years the rectangles of colour. Yellow, blue or red were painted, sometimes only one colour sometimes a duet of two, sometimes but more rarely a trio of three. For if the studio was full of the silence of human voices, the voices of the pictures were all the more audible - and what they said, clear, fundamental without frills or fancy - but sometimes did their speech become insistent to their creator, or was he lonely in his hermitage of pure art? Anyhow he had a cheap square little squeaky gramophone painted vivid dutch red - and on it he played the hottest blue jazz-only jazz, never that classical stuff – I don't remember any other objects in the studio except that gramophone, I doubt if there was any room for anything except all those canvases - sometimes we had tezanne made of cherry stone stalks, that was if he had sold a picture in Switzerland and was in funds. He seldom sold a picture, and when he did he lived on the proceeds for long periods. He liked flowers, he told me that in his regenerate days he lived on the pictures that he had painted of them-but in Paris he had never had any. One would not have dared to bring any to him. Too fancy; one took flowers when one visited Brancusi - he loved them and kept them for ever, dead and dry as beautiful he said as when they were in bloom. Mondrian bought Cambridge colours not because they were less expensive than others, but because he thought that Oxford and so also Cambridge was the most reliable English commodity. I regret that in this reliability we English let him down. He was just and honest and Dutch and stern, friendly to those who were people of progress, harsh to those who were not, surrealists, Fascists, reactionaries, people who tolerated green, purple, or orange all impure. 'You are the first person who has ever painted Yellow', I said to him once, 'pure lemon yellow like the sun.' He denied it, but next time I saw him, he took up the remark. 'I have thought about it,' he said, 'and it is so, but it is merely because Cadmium yellow pigment has been invented.'
4 The painter he liked best of the old painters he said was Fra Angelico - no surrealism there. There was war in the air - but the war between nations was not so bitter as the war between the constructivists and the surrealists - once, only once, I went to a constructivist studio party where a surrealist had slipped in. He was a Japanese critic – a brash fellow. He did not know what one did in Paris. But when the war of nations burst into our quartier life – I packed up my flat overlooking the Seine - no place for children this - the last reluctance to leave dissipated when I received a letter from England saying I must buy three bicycles to cycle to the coast with the three infants, one could hardly cycle, if the German armies came – Mondrian wrote to me that he wanted to go to London too, or did he write, I forget, those were confused days - one of the friends maybe suggested he should travel with me, he had not left his quartier for forty years, they said - so we set out together. I had sent my children and my furniture ahead of me - he had sent his pictures. We sat in the train. As I looked out of the window, I said goodbye to a period in France, that had been chaotic, revolutionary, inspiring, intense, enlightening. I was saying goodbye to it for myself and vaguely, prophetically, I knew it was goodbye to an era, not only for myself but for the world. Mondrian the other side of the carriage was gazing wrapt on to the Somme country as we sped past it on our way to Calais. It was September 21,1938. The grass was lush and green, the poplars were green and soft. The sky was evening yellow, sunlight, a green peace lay over the marshy lands. 'How beautiful, how peaceful it is', I thought, 'and you see Mondrian does not hate green, or the country, his eyes are full of its marvel.' 'Isn't it wonderful', he murmured. 'Yes, isn't it', I said.
'Look', he continued, 'how they pass, they pass, they pass, cutting the horizon here, and here, and here.' My hand moved as if to touch them, as they passed by out of the window of the flying train, and I realized that what delighted him were the telegraph poles - the verticals that cut the horizontal of the horizon. The fundamental of his art of space, its perception, its comprehension. No superficial pleasure of lush flowering green countryside, no light of a materially visible sunlight. The enlightenment of the harmony of opposites - the great two opposites horizontal and vertical - expressed in the two fundamental opposites of white and black-white space by black line. But duality, duality leads to madness, they must resolve with a trinity-so above the two paths of opposites, white versus black, horizontal versus vertical, sings the trio of blue, pure blue, yellow, purest yellow and red, vividest red - and if only one of these in the picture, why then it sings and calls for its complement like a lonely artist hermit in a sparse upper studio, a spirit searching for new realism like a scientist in outer untrodden space. How lonely those on the frontiers of outward bound thought! Later he wrote to me from London. 'No, I cannot come to Cumberland. It is too green. I must go to America, my pictures were nearly bombed. I must protect them, but you in England will win in the end however hard it may be - for we are fundamentally right.' This is how the letter remains in my mind, and I don't think that I will go up to my attic to see if I have remembered the words as they were written and still written on that yellow notepaper.

Barbara Hepworth
5 We knew, of course, by photographs, the works of Mondrian. We asked if we might see him on one of our visits to Paris in the early 1930's. In London it had been said that the works of Piet Mondrian were the 'end of painting'. I trembled at the thought of meeting him and seeing the paintings and the environment.
We arrived, and the door opened and there was a man with twinkling eyes and kindness in mouth and expression. Also an extraordinary grace of movement, and grace and manner of welcome. We entered, and I, as a sculptor, was entranced by his grace and delicacy of welcome. He served us tea on a white table with red and blue boxes containing a few biscuits. I looked up at the great studio and began to take in the force and power of this astonishing creative glow of colour and form.
It is now over thirty years ago, and yet the impact of that studio and the magnificent paintings he showed us last forever in my mind. He showed us paintings with the utmost grace and gentleness - also with a humility which made our love for him instant and everlasting.
When we left Mondrian's studio we sat down outside a cafe, and over another cup of tea we discussed the experience and said that this was not the end of any thing - it was the beginning of something. If every artist could truly, and with dedication, pull the string with which he was born - to the end - then a new concept could evolve.
Each of us has, within, his own calligraphy; but it is only by pursuing what is our true identity that we can expand and develop the world of form, colour and experience.
In those days we were very poor. To sell something for £40 was a great occasion. We kept in touch with Mondrian; but alas, I have none of the letters. When things worsened in Paris, Ben Nicholson helped him to come to England and found him a studio. It was a dreary room overlooking ours, but in a week Piet Mondrian had turned it into his Montparnasse Studio. He got cheap furniture from Camden Town - painted it white, his wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls. His paintings and canvases were all in evidence.
6 Once again I was struck by his most extraordinary grace and strength.
He often asked us to cross over to his studio and discuss the latest work. Again, this was done with the utmost grace of thought and movement. I was a bit nervous about Piet coming over to my studio. I knew he preferred a less violent atmosphere for his own thoughts.
We had three studios — Ben's just under Mondrian's. Mine, just full of stone dust, and a third studio just full of children. Nevertheless, Piet Mondrian became a pillar of strength. He, with utter equanimity, had tea with the triplets in the nursery studio. Three pairs of eyes stared at him and he treated them as grown-ups which filled them with surprise and wonder.With Ben, of course, he was at complete ease.
When he came to my studio I pulled the curtains, as I had planted flowering shrubs in the tiny garden. But Mondrian seemed to like my carvings and patted them as though they were children or cats or dogs - which of course they were! And very soon all the curtains were drawn - exposing the flowering shrubs and the plebeia plants. But Mondrian seemed to love this family life and would relax and talk about painting and about 'jazz'. His intellect was superb.
My job was to work and rear the children. Ben Nicholson saw to it that Mondrian was not ill and that he had his baked potatoes and tomatoes and his paints.
Then came the imminence of war. All our scant earnings diminished, Mondrian's too.
We had been asked for a holiday by Adrian Stokes, to bring the children to St Ives. And, if war broke out to keep them there in safety. Obviously, a glass-roofed studio was not safe. We set off in deepest gloom in a second-hand car costing £17 (less than the fares by rail) and all the children, one hammer and chisel and some paints. The last person we saw was Piet Mondrian in the street. We begged him to come too, or to follow us. We said we would find a studio for him. How could we look after him if we could not get back? He said No. He kept on writing to us until the bombing started and he left for U.S.A. I shall always remember his eyes and elegant figure in the street in Hampstead. The feeling that I should never see him again. The feeling that I should never again see his studio, or Ben's, or mine again. And so it was. A saint in Hampstead. A much loved friend — a great artist, whom we missed so very much. Once again I say that what he created was the beginning of something - an opening of the door to all of us.

Miriam Gabo
7 When Mondrian arrived in London all the friends in the Mall scurried round finding things to furnish his room which had been found for him, very near to the Mall Studios. We all tried to make him comfortable. I seem to remember that Gabo and I supplied a cot and a blue quilt to keep him warm, etc. Also a pair of warm carpet-slippers which he treasured. He was always on some kind of cranky diet and at this time he was on what was called 'The Haye Diet' after a Dr Haye who was very popular in France. We used to tease Mondrian, insisting that he existed on carrots alone. He came to us often for lunch because I knew what he would and would not eat.
When he came to our flat in Cholmley Gardens, he was quite interested in my realistic paintings and portraits and landscapes but gave me a solemn lecture in his broken French-English on how to set about becoming an abstract painter (try first painting the landscape or portrait all in one colour!). Later on I volunteered to take him shopping for paints and other studio equipment, and pursuing his desire for a painting smock, we stopped at various clothing shops on the Hampstead Road, where he turned down shopkeepers' cloth coats, but when he was shown a real smock with gathers at the yoke in the first artists' colourman we came to, he bought that and two or three big tubes of oil colour with a happy smile.
I well remember Mondrian's determination and plan, which he carried out, to go to New York because of the pending war in which we, in our innocence, did not at that time quite believe.

Herbert Read
8 When Mondrian sought refuge in England in 1938 he naturally came to Hampstead where he already had friends - Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and others who had sometimes visited him in Paris. I myself had once penetrated to the immaculate white cell in which he worked there, and it was interesting to observe how quickly he reduplicated his familiar environment in London. He found (or someone found for him) a room on the ground floor of a house in Upper Parkhill Road which was almost exactly opposite the studio in Mall Studios which I then occupied. I have always respected an artist's privacy, especially during the precious hours of daylight, but Mondrian was lonely and in the evening one or more of the community of artists living in the district at that time would 'drop in' unannounced and he always received us with the gracious dignity that was one of his characteristics. I do not remember any very profound discussions - we were more worried about his material comfort and practical difficulties - but no doubt we did discuss his paintings and art in general. I once noticed, during a period of two or three visits, that he was always engaged in painting the black lines in the same picture, and I asked him whether it was a question of the exact width of the line. He answered No: it was a question of its intensity, which could only be achieved by repeated applications of the paint. There is a tendency to consider Mondrian's paintings as primarily the organization of form or space, but to the artist himself these qualities could not be divorced from colour, and colour to him was a quality of the utmost purity and exactitude. Hence any attempt to re-paint or 'restore' a painting by Mondrian (and it has been done) inevitably destroys the perfection which was the artist's supreme passion.

Ben Nicholson
9 My chief recollection of Mondrian's stay in London was that having found him a room in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park near where Barbara Hepworth and I lived and worked in the Mall, he almost immediately transformed the usual dull, rented room into a sunlit South of France (not as the South of France is lit now but as it was then): this he did not only with the presence of his work but with orange boxes and the simplest, cheapest kitchen furniture bought in Camden Town and then painted an immaculate, glowing white. No one could make a white more white than Mondrian. The effect of entering his room on a foggy Hampstead night was indeed something. Our problem was to find enough friends who understood his work and at the same time had enough money to buy it: his smallest works were then about £25 and the larger ones £45 but even so we did not have enough to buy one. But a number of friends did buy and amongst those I remember are Leslie and Sadie Martin, Nancy Roberts, Helen Sutherland, Nicolette Gray and Winifred Nicholson (who persistently helped him both in Paris and in London and accompanied him when he left Paris for London). When war was inevitable we tried to persuade him to move out of London and Herbert Read offered to put him up in Hertfordshire but he refused to move until later he wrote to us in Cornwall that he'd 'felt an urge to move'. This 'urge' proved to be a large unexploded bomb close to his studio, and he moved to a Hampstead hotel. Quite soon after this he left for New York. One day he brought us a present of a recent painting, a most generous gift, and as it was near tea time we asked him to have tea with us, and with our triplets then aged about four, and to their amazement he proceeded to eat his jam off the end of his knife, obviously a tremendous event in their lives. As we walked away he remarked that all small children are barbarians. I must say that during tea this particular bunch were so angelic as to be unbelievable: if only he could have seen them when they were at their barbaric best or heard their remarks on his barbaric knife. When reading notes on Mondrian I have not yet seen any mention of his humour - there were a number of examples of this in London but one of the more typical examples occurred when he arrived in New York and visited the enlightened collector A. E. Gallatin, who collected early Cubism, Brancusi and Mondrian. He lived in Park Avenue at a point where there is, I understand, a single tree every two or three hundred yards - Mondrian looked out of the window and then turned to Gallatin and remarked 'I'd no idea that you lived rural district'.

Naum Gabo
10 I had no so-called intimate relations with Mondrian. We were friends in the abstract sense. He used to come to us often for lunch, however. Our relationship was really very different from when I knew him in Paris from 1926 or 1927 onwards, and used to visit him in his studio. My brother Antoine knew him well. We were both committed to an idea, and Mondrian used to defend his own philosophy - neo-plasticism - very strongly.
His Paris studio was a Mondrian in space. White, with geometrical shapes of colour on the wall. The furniture was just straight up and down: he made it himself. We used to have tea in exquisite white cups: they too went straight up and down.
I remember when he was in the Mall. Always his idea was that he was only in London en route to the U.S. He dreamt about Broadway almost like a child. We all looked for a place for him, but Ben Nicholson found the room. He used to complain about the room. 'Too many trees.' He didn't like trees much. And he used to complain about Holland: 'Too many cows and too many meadows.'
The same discussions went on in London as in Paris. I was always against '-isms', and we tried to bring out our differences. He was against space. Once he was showing me a painting. 'My goodness!' I said, 'Are you still painting that one?' I had seen it much earlier. 'The white is not flat enough,' he said. He thought there was still too much space in the white, and he denied any variations of colour. His ideas were very clear. He thought a painting must be flat, and that colour should not show any indication of space. This was a main principle of neo-plasticism. My argument was, 'You can go on forever, but you will never succeed'. Though I must say that, to an extent, when the paintings were only black and white, that could be pretty flat. But even the distribution of light does change the colour into something spatial, with space in it.
When we were in London we all organized an exhibition - Ben, Barbara, Mondrian, Cecil Stephenson (he was badly neglected), and others. Mesens was one of the chief organizers, and he asked every artist to say what school he belonged to. So when the proofs of the catalogue were sent to us we looked through them - Ben was with us - and the question of what Mondrian should say came up. Mondrian said, 'Constructivist'. I looked at him and he smiled. It was a great victory for me, because at that time he apparently agreed with me. I always insisted that his works were really in the constructivist line. Instead of saying 'neo-plasticism', he wrote ‘constructivist'. 'All right', he said, 'I am really a constructivist artist.'
11 I have never met such a lonesome and unhappy man, even though he liked jazz and dancing; a man so concentrating on himself, very calm, not a man of words. He was intrinsically warm, but outwardly cold, but he was not a man with whom you could have personal relationships. I don't know whether he had close friends. I don’t know what relationship he had with the man who was his heir. Of course, he had been totally neglected in Paris. He had only one man, in Holland, who supported him and bought his work. He couldn't look after himself properly. He was terribly thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet. He rarely touched meat. Once I called on him in the morning early, and he was wearing an old coat. I found that he didn't have any warm pyjamas. So I took him my own, and a woollen dressing gown. When I took them in I saw a smile on his face for the first time.
12 He was also absolutely uninterested in money. He once offered me one of his best paintings for £10. I said ‘I just cannot buy it, it's one of your best works, you’ve been working on it for so long.' But he was very stubborn. He didn't want me to refuse. But I couldn't buy it, because he just didn't know the value of his paintings.
He was really terribly neglected. When I found out how he died, I was horrified. It was unforgivable of the whole artistic community in New York to let him die that way - in bed for three days with lung inflammation, and when people eventually found him it was too late.

The illustrations are as shown in the article, although they do not seem to bear much relation to the text. I have replaced b&w images with colour where possible. The text accompanying each picture is given below.

1. Piet Mondrian, photographed by Cecil Stephenson in 1938 or 1939
2. Mondrian in 1908. (Reproduced from Michael Seuphor's Piet Mondrian)
3. Mondrian in 1911. (Reproduced from Michael Seuphor's Piet Mondrian)
4. Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1939-42.Oil 31¼ x 28 in. Harry Holtzman Collection, New York
5. Composition London, 1940-42. Oil 32½ x 28 in. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (Room of the Contemporary Art Fund)
6. From the catalogue to the Abstract & Concrete exhibition organised by Nicolette Gray - among the exhibitors were Gabo and Barbara Hepworth
7. Sea at Sunset, 1909. Oil 25 x 30 in. Private collection, Holland
8. Eucalyptus 1910. Oil 20¼ x 15¾ in.
9. Mondrian's studio in the Rue de Départ, Paris - 'One tulip in a vase, an artificial one, its leaves painted white.'
10. 60 Parkhill Road, Hampstead, where Mondrian had a studio on the hall floor, overlooking the garden. In the foreground is the studio used at the time by Ben Nicholson.
11. 'Too many trees' - the garden at 60 Parkhill Road, Hampstead, from Ben Nicholson's former studio.

There is also an essay on Mondrian, A Tulip with White Leaves by David Sylvester in the magazine. I might add that in due course.

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page rewritten 18th October 2011