Thursday 5 February 2009

William Nicholson: Great Boots

Just days after James Joyce's, we have another birthday to celebrate (a 137th, rather than a 127th) - that of William Nicholson, an artist best remembered for revolutionising the art of the woodcut in his 'Beggarstaff Brothers' collaboration with James Pryde. Those great prints, with their bold, expressive design, deservedly remain hugely popular. Many of them - the famous Queen Victoria and Rudyard Kiplng among them - also demonstrate the gift for portraiture which was to provide Nicholson with his bread and butter. As a painter, though, I reckon he is hugely underrated. The exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago was one of the most enjoyably eye-opening I have ever seen, and included some unmistakably great paintings. One that lingers in the memory is a huge group portrait of the Canadian Headquarters Staff in World War I, an awkward assembly of men in uniform, standing at various angles, no one's eyes meetng anyone else's - in front of, and entirely dominated by, a gigantic aerial photograph of some bomb-flattened French town. It is a breathtaking work (rarely seen in public, and no image traceable on the internet unfortunately), and one of its remarkable features is that the officers' shiny boots seem more alive than them... And then there are Miss Jekyll's boots, which Nicholson painted in addition to his portrait of the great gardener (Gertrude) herself, and which seem almost as alive. With Van Gogh's these are, I'd contend, the great boots of modern art.
Nicholson was also an accomplished landscapist - his strong sense of design and preference for minimal means again to the fore - and, in particular, a marvellous still-life painter, with an almost uncanny gift for rendering metallic shine and lustre. Considering his careful cultivation of the 'dandy' pose, his work is always suprisingly restrained, with little of the dash or swagger so characteristic of Edwardian painting. Nothing is over-finished, and his virtuoso brushwork doesn't call attention to itself - nothing about his paintings does - but anyone with an eye can see that this was a real painter. His present eclipse is partly due to the swing in fashion that favoured modernist Ben over bygone Bill, and partly due to his work being so widely scattered in private collections (a lovely little landscape turned up on Antiques Roadshow recently). It would be nice to think that future generations might yet put him up there where he belongs, as one of the great British painters of the 20th century.


  1. Wow, another great discovery.

    I like the one of the man himself and his household, A Bloomsbury Family.

    Canadian Headquarters Staff is rare on the net, but findable if you know where to look hoho.

  2. Great find Mark - thanks! And the Bloomsbury Family...

  3. The Bloomsbury family portrait is by William Orpen ('Bloomsbury' didn't yet have any of its present connotations at this stage)

  4. Adding to the previous comment, those interested in Nicholson's work (and personality) could do worse than consult Sanford Schwarz's eccentric biography

  5. 'Revolutionizing the woodcut' in a manner very reminiscent of the woodcuts of Emil Orlik, which predate Nicholsons by at least one year.