Title(Lionel) Benedict Nicolson Archive
Admin/Biog HistoryNicolson, (Lionel) Benedict (1914-1978) art historian, was born on 6 August 1914 the elder son and elder child of Sir Harold George Nicolson (1886-1968), diplomat, author and MP, and his wife, Victoria Mary (Vita) Sackville-West (1892-1962), poet, novelist, biographer and gardener.

Nicolson was educated at Eton College and in 1933 went up to at Balliol College, Oxford where he made lifelong friends with some of the leading intellectual forces of the day including Isaiah Berlin, John Pope-Hennessy, Jeremy Hutchinson and Philip Toynbee. With his deep interest in the arts, acquired during school holidays on visits to Italy, he helped found the Florentine Club, an undergraduate society which enticed to Oxford, speakers such as Kenneth Clark, Duncan Grant and Clive Bell.

Nicolson came down from Oxford in 1936 with a second-class degree in modern history. Following advice from Kenneth Clark, rather than enrolling at the Courtauld Institute to pursue an academic course in art history, he sought to develop his knowledge by studying paintings in the public and private collections of Europe and America . With this in mind, Nicolson travelled extensively between 1936 and 1939 spending time in the great (and more obscure) collections, of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France and the U.S.A.

Alongside this independent study, Nicolson also undertook a series of unpaid positions: at the National Gallery (January-August 1937); at I Tatti, as the pupil of Bernard Berenson (November 1937-March 1938); and at the Fogg Art Museum, Massachusetts (October-December 1938). When Nicolson returned to London in April 1939, he was appointed Deputy Surveyor of the King's pictures (Clark himself was surveyor until 1944). In this role he helped to catalogue the Royal Collection and - until he was called to active service - assisted with the task of finding wartime refuge for its major works of art.

In September 1939, following the outbreak of the Second World War Nicolson enlisted in Victor Cazalet's anti-aircraft battery at Chatham. He later obtained a commission in the intelligence corp. Posted as an interpreter to camps for Italian prisoners of war, he was found too sympathetic to young Italians to make a good gaoler and in 1942 was transferred to the Middle East as an instructor in interpreting military air photographs. He remained in this role until being invalided home after a serious road accident, in March 1945.

By June 1945, now under Anthony Blunt, Nicolson had resumed his work as Deputy Surveyor. From this point onwards, he also began to publish articles and introductions on a wide variety of artists including Modigliani, Vermeer, Cezanne, Seurat and the painters of Ferrara. Never a natural courtier, he was perhaps relieved to resign his official functions in 1948 when he was invited - largely at the instigation of Herbert Read and Ellis Waterhouse - to edit the Burlington Magazine. From this point forward the Burlington remained the central interest of his life: he remained its editor until his death thirty-one years later.

As an editor, Nicolson was meticulous, open and - unusually in a profession reputed to be malevolent - totally without guile. He attracted writers of distinction, by his own distinction and under his long editorship the Burlington became the most respected art journal in the English language, and probably in the world.

Nicolson's interests were wide ranging and encompassed the whole field of Western painting, except the most modern. He published books on a number of artists including Hendrick Terbrugghen (1958), Joseph Wright of Derby (1968) and - with Christopher Wright - Georges de la Tour (1974). He also wrote two minor books: The Treasures of the Foundling Museum (1972) and Courbet: Studio of Light (1973). For many years before his death he had been working on lists of paintings by followers of Caravaggio, and the book was published posthumously (1979) under the title The International Caravaggesque Movement, with an introduction by Anthony Blunt.

On 8 August 1955, Nicolson married Luisa, daughter of Professor Giacomo Vertova of Florence, herself a distinguished art historian and a previous assistant to Berenson. There was a daughter of this marriage, Vanessa, which was dissolved in 1962. Nicolson was appointed MVO in 1947 and CBE in 1971. In 1977 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy. Nicolson's death on 22 May 1978 was very sudden: he collapsed with a massive stroke in a London underground station as he was returning from dining at his and club and died in Middlesex hospital, Westminster. He was sixty-three. Following cremation at Golders Green, his ashes were buried at Sissinghurst parish cemetry.

Please note - this description is taken from Nigel Nicolson, revised: Nicolson, Lionel Benedict (1914-1978), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, January 2011. [, accessed 5 January 2021]
DescriptionThe archive was created and compiled by Nicolson in a personal, rather than professional, capacity. The majority of the material dates from the 1930s and documents his formative years - in particular, his time at Oxford and his pursuit of a career in art history, immediately afterwards. It only includes a small volume of material pertaining to Nicolson's work at the Burlington. It does not include any research information pertaining to Nicolson's published articles and books.

The archive is arranged into three sequences reflecting the manner in which it was originally organised by Nicolson:
-journals (written by Nicolson)
-correspondence (received by Nicolson from close friends and acquaintances)
-other material (including biographical information collected after Nicolson's death)

Together, the material presents a unique and personal record of Nicolson's experiences as the son of famous, wealthy, well-connected parents in the early to mid twentieth century. Alongside art and art history, the archive explores a multitude of subjects, including - but not limited to:

-the arts (eg. books, ballet, music, theatre, film etc.)
-history & politics (eg. current affairs, communism, socialism, Marxism, the Second World War etc.)
-social history (eg. sex and sexuality, women, class, the Bloomsbury Group, Edwardian society etc.)
-life & the human experience (love, loss, ageing, youth, grief, joy etc.)

In addition, since Nicolson's social circle included some of the most influential individuals of the day - particularly in relation to the arts - the archive also provides a unique insight into some of the characters that shaped the twentieth century.
Extent6 boxes (18 journals; 35 files)
Related MaterialThe archive of the Burlington Magazine is held at the National Gallery, London.

Ben Nicolson at Sissinghurst.jpg

Image CaptionNicolson at Sissinghurst, c1934
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