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Sir William Nicholson, Artist Portrait Photograph

William Nicholson’s singular achievement rests on three diverse strands of work: the pioneering and influential posters and woodcuts made when he was still in his twenties, the portraits of distinguished contemporaries, and the poetic landscapes and still-lifes. His best work has a subtlety, virtuosity and individual voice that places it with the finest of its period.  


William Newzam Prior Nicholson was born in Newark-on-Trent, England on 5 February 1872. He was the youngest child of William Newzam Nicholson, engineer, of the Trent Ironworks, and later MP for Newark, and his second wife, Ann Elizabeth Prior, of Woodstock, Oxfordshire. At the age of sixteen Nicholson entered Hubert von Herkomer’s art school at Bushey. There he met fellow student Mabel Pryde, who was to become his first wife. She introduced him to her brother, the artist James Pryde. Nicholson left Herkomer’s in 1891 following what Herkomer termed ‘a piece of Whistlerian impudence’ (William had posed a nude model with an open umbrella). In the autumn of that year he visited Paris and enrolled for a short time at the Académie Julian. After their marriage in 1893, William and Mabel settled first at the Eight Bells, Denham, Buckinghamshire, where they were joined by James Pryde.

In 1894 Pryde and Nicholson, as J. and W. Beggarstaff, began to collaborate on a series of posters which were revolutionary in style with their boldness of outline, simplicity of treatment and striking silhouettes, and their flat, pure colours. These included designs for Don Quixote  (made for Sir Henry Irving’s 1895 production but not used on the hoardings), Harper’s Magazine (1895) and Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa (1896).

The Beggarstaff partnership was short-lived but the originality of their posters was widely recognised. In the following years Nicholson evolved out of the posters a personal style which he began to exploit through the medium of the woodcut. In this venture he had the good fortune to be encouraged by Whistler who recommended him to the publisher William Heinemann. The publications which followed established Nicholson’s solo reputation. An Alphabet  and An Almanac of Twelve Sports, with verses by Rudyard Kipling, both appeared in 1897 (title-pages post-dated 1898), London Types, with verses by W.E. Henley, in 1898 and The Square Book of Animals  in 1899. Nicholson also made a series of portrait woodcuts, the first of which was the irreverent, affectionate jubilee portrait of Queen Victoria, (originally published in Henley’s New Review  in June 1897), which brought him great success. These were collected in the two series of Twelve Portraits  (1899 and 1902), the first of which was awarded a gold medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Heinemann windmill colophon still used today was designed by Nicholson at this time.

Sir William Nicholson, Artist Portrait Photograph

After the turn of the century Nicholson concentrated on painting, and portrait commissions were his main means of support. His subjects included many of the prominent figures of the period, and in 1909 he wrote of ‘relays of sitters every twenty minutes’. He was best known in his lifetime as a portrait painter. Among his finest portraits are those of Max Beerbohm (c.1903) and Gertrude Jekyll (1920), both in the National Portrait Gallery, London, of his friend Walter Greaves (1917) in Manchester City Art Gallery, and of George Saintsbury (1923) at Merton College, Oxford. Nicholson’s real love, however, was landscape and still-life painting, and it is these works which are especially highly regarded today. His son Ben admired - and acknowledged a debt to - their ‘poetic spirit’. Modest in scale, they have a tonal mastery, economy of means, sensitivity of touch and acuteness of perception which is very distinctive. Nicholson had a special feeling for the English downlands, whether the Sussex downs around Rottingdean where he moved in 1909 or, later, the Wiltshire downs. Between the wars he also painted in France and Spain. His still-life compositions took as their subjects the silver, lustreware, jugs and mugs, vases, goblets, glass, flowers, fruit, mushrooms and fish of his domestic surroundings. His repertory of still-life objects was a heritage Ben Nicholson prized.

William Nicholson’s painting has affinities with Whistler and Manet: he did not respond to later French painting. He had a great admiration for the work of Velazquez. In the 1920s his palette lightened and his handling became freer: these later paintings are more experimental and he learned from the younger artists of his own family - his second wife Edie, his son Ben and Ben’s wife Winifred. William was independent of any school of painting and refused election to the Royal Academy, at which he never exhibited. He was knighted in 1936 and had an important retrospective at the National Gallery in 1942.


Nicholson had a strong interest in the theatre and made designs for a number of productions. In 1904, for example, J. M. Barrie invited him to design costumes and scenery for the first production of Peter Pan  and in 1922 he contributed sets and costumes to Nigel Playfair’s production of John Gay’s opera Polly. In 1925 he designed the décor and costumes for Léonide Massine’s ballet The Rake  in the revue On with the Dance mounted by C. B. Cochran and Noël Coward at the London Pavilion. Nicholson loved poetry and illustrated the works of his writer friends (such as W.H. Davies and Siegfried Sassoon) and others. Together with Robert Graves, who married Nicholson’s daughter Nancy in 1918, he edited the review The Owl . His natural sympathy with children produced work of great charm such as The Pirate Twins  (1929), written and illustrated by Nicholson, and his illustrations for Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit  (1922).

Sir William Nicholson, Artist Portrait Photograph

In figure Nicholson was slight and graceful and very agile. His friend Gordon Craig described him as ‘skilful beyond words in handling anything where eye and hand and brain have to be under perfect control, and in absolute harmony.’ (Craig, Woodcuts and some words, 1924.) He dressed with meticulous but unconventional fastidiousness. His wardrobe was famous for its delicately spotted shirts and dressing gowns, canary-yellow waistcoats and immaculate white trousers - worn also for painting. His distinctive taste was evident in his homes, for example The Grange at Rottingdean and his London studio-residence at Apple Tree Yard, St. James’s. He had a very particular sense of humour and a fondness for puns. He was companionable and would paint unperturbed while a stream of visitors passed through his studio. Ben Nicholson observed: ‘Behind his personality lay a very simple direct painterly approach’. He did not like to talk about art and eschewed art theory.

Nicholson and his first wife the painter Mabel (1871-1918) had four children, Ben, Tony, Nancy, later a fabric designer, and the architect Christopher (Kit). Tony was killed on active service in France in 1918 a few months after Mabel’s death in the influenza epidemic in July of that year. In 1919 William married Edith (1890-1958), also a painter, daughter of Sir Lionel Phillips, first baronet, and widow of Lieutenant-Colonel John Stuart Wortley: their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1920. The writer Marguerite Steen (1894-1975) was Nicholson’s companion from 1935 until his death. Nicholson died at Blewbury, Berkshire, on 16 May 1949 and was buried at Newark.

Sophie Bowness

For further information and archive enquiries, please contact the William Nicholson Trust

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