Back in 1968, I joined William Heinemann publishers as their art director, and the first thing the struck me was this.
Known as a ‘colophon’, it graced the spines and title pages of all of Heinemann’s books. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was an engraving by the artist William Nicholson. He became synonymous with Heinemann in the 1890s when he produced a series of woodcuts for An Alphabet and London Types. He also illustrated Margery Williams’ wonderful children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit.
The Velveteen Rabbit 1922
It was only then that I looked further and discovered his beautiful, sumptuous paintings. Even today, they seem to just get better, especially the portraits. They have a delightful stillness and richness about them, and the composition tends to be very graphic – probably why I like them so much.
Portrait of Diamond Hardinge 1915
Mrs Stafford of Paradise Row 1906
Boy with the Caroline Mug 1899
The Yellow Lady
Nicholson was born in Newark-on-Trent in 1872 to a reasonably well-heeled family. His father, also William, was a prominent Newark businessman running a major agricultural engineering company.
As is often the way, a teacher recognised the young Nicholson’s talent. He took lessons from the painter William Cubley, who had been a pupil of Sir William Beechey, who in turn had been a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1891, he attended the Académie Julian in Paris but returned to Newark after just six months, probably missing his girlfriend Mabel Pryde, who he’d met at art school.
The pair eloped in 1893 and settled in a one-time pub in Denham, Buckinghamshire. They had four children, the most notable being Ben, who went on to become a renowned modernist painter and married Barbara Hepworth. There was also Anthony, who died of wounds during the First World War; Annie Mary (Nancy), who was yet another artist and who married the poet Robert Graves; and lastly, Christopher (Kit), who found his path in architecture and design.
An Alphabet published in 1897
In the late 1890s, he turned his hand to engraving and printmaking, teaming up with his brother-in-law James Pryde. They became known as the Beggarstaff Brothers, producing simple, bold images and gaining much popularity; many leading magazines and periodicals were giving away coloured, stone-lithographed, frameable reproductions at the time, mostly sponsored by advertisers to promote products, Pear’s Soap being the most famous for adapting John Everett Millais’ popular painting Bubbles to help to flog its soap.
Nicholson’s woodcuts led to a series for William Heinemann, including the classics An Alphabet Book and London Types. Nicholson adapted brilliantly to the medium, creating wonderfully stark graphic images in both book and portfolio form – still sought after today.
In 1918, Nicholson’s wife Mabel died during the Spanish flu epidemic, to be followed soon after by their son Anthony. Following Mabel’s death, he married his housekeeper Marie Laquelle in 1919: she had been his mistress for some time, and he had painted a notable nude of her as ‘Carlina’ in 1909. Following that, he married Edith Stuart-Wortley, also an artist and the widow of Sir John Stuart-Wortley. The relationship eventually petered out, and they separated.
In the summer of 1935, he took up with novelist Marguerite Steen; they had met in Andalucía, and they lived together at Nicholson’s mews studio in Apple Tree Yard, off Jermyn Street.Nicholson’s success had brought him money, a knighthood and a retrospective at the Tate Gallery. But by the early 20th century, he was out of step with the rapidly changing art scene and its plethora of new movements: the fauvists, cubists, surrealists and constructivists. Compared to these, Nicholson’s work was seen as rather old hat.
Still Life 1911
On the Downs (Wiltshire Landscape) 1924
The Windmill, Brighton Downs (Brighton Downs, Rottingdean) 1910
Judd's Farm 1912
In 1939, he suffered a stroke, from which he recovered, but he had given up painting by 1942. He died at his home in Blewbury, Berkshire, in 1949 aged 77, living long enough to see the success of his son Ben.
Miss Wish Wynne (1882–1931), Actress, in the Character of Janet Cannot for the Play 'The Great Adventure'
Sir Max Beerbohm 1905
Unfinished portrait of Ben Nicholson
The Chinese Vase 1911
The Silver Casket 1919
Portrait of the Children of General John A Logan
Looking back at the breadth of his work today, one can appreciate the magnificent beauty and skill he imbued in every piece, be it painting, engraving, illustrating or designing for the theatre.