Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949)

William Nicholson was born in Newark, Nottinghamshire, the youngest son of William Newzam Nicholson, an industrialist and Conservative MP for Newark, and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Prior.

William Nicholson was a painter of still-life, landscape and portraits. He also worked as a wood-engraver, illustrator, author of children’s books and theatre designer.  He was briefly a student at Hubert von Herkomer’s art school, where he met his future wife, Mabel Pryde. From the autumn of 1891 he attended the Académie Julian in Paris for six months, returning soon after to Newark.

Following his marriage to Mabel Pryde in Ruislip in 1893, the couple went to live in Denham, Buckinghamshire, where they were joined by Mabel’s brother, James, and soon afterwards by Ellen Terry’s son, Edward Gordon Craig and his wife May. William and Mabel Nicholson had four children:  the eldest, Ben, became the celebrated St. Ives artist. Following the death of Mabel in 1918, William married in 1919 Edith Stuart-Wortley, widow of Sir John Stuart-Wortley and artist in her own right. Their daughter, Liza, was born in 1920.

From 1893 to 1898 Nicholson collaborated with his brother-in-law, James Pryde, on poster design and other graphic work, including signpost painting and book illustration. He also provided illustrations and cover designs for several of the early books of his son-in-law, Robert Graves. Nicholson’s books for children all date from the1920’s.

Encouraged by Whistler, Nicholson concentrated on painting from about 1900, first exhibiting at the International Society, where Whistler was President. Many exhibitions of his work have been held at major museums and galleries throughout the UK and Europe including the National Gallery, London. Throughout his impressive career, Nicholson’s work was imbued with the effects of light produced by oils, resulting in subtle effects of darkness, shadow, reflection and illumination.

Nicholson turned down consideration for election to the Royal Academy in 1926 but became a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1934 for five years. He was knighted in 1936.

Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949), The Harbour, La Rochelle, c. 1938


Panel; 14 ¾ x 18 in (37.5 x 45.7 cm)
Signed with the initial ‘N’; inscribed with title on reverse

Collections: Roland, Browse and Delbanco; Captain Sir Malcolm Bullock, Bt.; Mrs Peter Hastings; Christie’s, March 1 1974 (128) bt. Simon Sainsbury and thence by descent

Exhibited: Arts Council, Exhibition of British Painting 1925-1950, 1951 (93)

Literature: L. Browse, William Nicholson, 1956, p.109 (484)

Nicholson and his companion, the novelist Marguerite Steen, on their last journey abroad visited La Rochelle in August 1938 returning to spend the winter there that year. Nicholson owned a copy of Jacques Callot’s famous print of the city under the siege of 1627-1628 and he was thrilled to be able to take lodgings in a building featured in the print.

The winter that year was a harsh one with plenty of snow and Nicholson made some beautiful snowscapes from his bedroom window looking across the old harbour. The present picture is closest to the view in the Tate, which is done with the snow still on the ground. The pale pastel tonality of Nicholson’s painting invites comparison with Whistler and makes these some of the most beautiful landscapes of his career.

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