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The Artistic Bloke

William Nicholson

by Sanford Schwartz
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 296 pp., $50.00

1.

In 1896 the publisher William Heinemann commissioned the twenty-four-year-old artist William Nicholson to make a series of woodblock prints called “An Alphabet.” One of its best-known images, “A was an Artist,” is a self-portrait of Nicholson dressed as a pavement artist in a workingman’s waistcoat and boots, his shirt-sleeves rolled up for a job of work, a bandanna tied loosely around his neck (see illustration on page 24). The image so perfectly embodies our idea of the impoverished artist that we forget how novel such a conception was in England in the 1890s.

Even a decade earlier the word “artist” would have conjured up a picture of the silver-haired Frederic Leighton, presiding over a banquet at the Royal Academy, or hosting a musical soirée at his palatial home in Holland Park. Whether we think of G.F. Watts or John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones or William Powell Frith, successful British artists tended to be prosperous members of the middle class, and proud of it. Even the more raffish ones like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler had lived in some style. But of course Whistler belonged to an older generation, a generation for whom A stood not only for Artist but also for Aesthete.

And everybody knew what an Aesthete looked like. In 1892, only a few years before Nicholson’s self-portrait, William Rothenstein painted the artist Charles Conder in a black top hat, tight gloves, and slim greatcoat, swiveling around to face the spectator like a burglar caught with the family silver, or a giant beetle disturbed by the light. Rothenstein’s portrait of Conder joined Whistler’s of Robert de Montesquieu and John Singer Sargent’s of Graham Robertson as a defining image of the artist-as-dandy. As we shall see, Nicholson himself was to paint two of the last and greatest portraits of Aesthetes—but as elegies for the Whistlerian moment in British art. By dressing like a common laborer in his self-portrait, the young Nicholson presents himself to the world as a man of the people, distancing himself not only from the middle class into which he was born but also from the sartorial elegance that marked an artist out as an Aesthete.

In reality Nicholson was a bit of a dandy—or, at any rate, a snappy dresser. Compared to the Aesthetes, his dress sense was less of a symphony in gray and black than a quickstep in primary colors. Sanford Schwartz, in his consistently entertaining study of Nicholson’s life and work, tells us that

most of the distinguishing details of his clothing—braces, shirt, collar, waistcoat—were bright lemon yellow or orange-red or were spotted with dots of these colours. He would open up his jacket and a degree of bright light would spring forth. He would often be accompanied by some kind of abrupt little hat, and he frequently wore white ducks and a dark green jacket.

Though he ended his days with a knighthood and as a trustee of the Tate Gallery, we can place Nicholson in a very specific social niche: London’s grand bohemia. Born in 1872, the son of a Nottingham industrialist, he had attended grammar school until the age of sixteen, and then enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris, and he spent time copying Velázquez in the Louvre. For two years, between 1894 and 1896, he was the partner of James Pryde in the team of avant-garde poster makers who called themselves J. and W. Beggarstaff. At the age of twenty-one he eloped with James’s sister Mabel, who was also an artist and who was to bear him four children. By 1907, when William Orpen painted the young Nicholson family, William had become the very image of an Edwardian paterfamilias. In a dining room hung from dado to ceiling with framed pictures, he sits in an antique library chair, wearing a black silk dressing gown and slippers, benevolently ignoring his wife and children. The man in the picture is shown neither as an aristocrat nor as an artisan, but as what he was: a gent.

But you might not guess this from the medium and technique of “A was an Artist.” As Schwartz notes in his chapter on the woodcuts, Nicholson printed the heavy black outlines of his woodcut figures on brown paper and then added discreet touches of color by hand. His prints looked more like penny broadsheets sold by street peddlers than works of high art. Bearing in mind that this was the height of the Victorian craze for the fine print (with its idiotic but lucrative emphasis on rare papers, artist’s proofs, proofs before letters, letter proofs, presentation proofs, and all the rest of it), Nicholson’s print is deliberately populist.

On the other hand, his tendency to simplify shapes and to flatten pictorial space, his rhythmic use of broad areas of light and dark, and his sensitive placement of the single figure on the page all remind us, as Schwartz makes clear, that some of the most sophisticated British art of the 1890s was made by black-and-white artists working for The Yellow Book and the Savoy Magazine. So two things are happening at once: Nicholson’s medium and subject subtly convey the message that his is an art the British people can trust, an art that is anti-Aesthetic, even low-brow. But the daring simplicity of his composition and his radical treatment of space place him in the front ranks of the early modernist movement. What we need to ask ourselves now is why Nicholson felt the need to disguise his artistic allegiances to Beardsley, Beerbohm, and other contributors to the Yellow Book and to assume the identity of a working-class bloke.

2.

In the years before Oscar Wilde’s trial for indecency in 1895, painting and sculpture in England had been going through a period of unusual fecundity as successive waves of Aestheticism, Symbolism, and Decadence were grafted onto the innate tendency toward the visionary in British art. But Wilde’s conviction cut short this late flowering of English Romantic painting. “The aesthetic cult, in the nasty form, is over,” trumpeted the tabloid News of the World after Wilde’s sentencing in May of 1895.1 Many artists associated with Symbolism and Decadence—and not just those whose sexual orientation was illegal—either left the country or toned their work down. Whistler, Sickert, Beardsley, Condor, and Alfred Gilbert all left, at least for a time. By the turn of the century, for one reason or another, a whole generation of England’s most imaginative artists sought the more tolerant atmospheres of Dieppe, Bruges, Mentone, Paris, and Venice.

The silencing of the Aesthetes and Decadents, followed by the death of Aubrey Beardsley in 1898, left a vacuum in British art to be filled by beer-drinking, bicycle-riding members of the New English Art Club—and later by the Camden Town Group, Bloomsbury, and the Euston Road School, all of whom looked for stylistic inspiration not to the visual traditions of their own country but to France. The result was an era of unprecedented banality for English art. The triumph of Post-Impressionism all but snuffed out the flame of Symbolist art that had passed down from Blake and Rossetti to Burne-Jones and Beardsley.

Nicholson was to paint two portraits in which, I think, you find some of this history. The first is one of the strangest images in the whole of English art. His 1903 full-length portrait of Max Beerbohm shows the essayist, wit, and caricaturist standing in three-quarter profile against a neutral background, dressed from top to toe in black and carrying an ebony walking stick and silk top hat. He is instantly recognizable as an Aesthetic dandy. But instead of looking out of the canvas, he turns aside with his eyes shut and downcast. Like a criminal in an identity parade, he looks ashamed, evasive—as though unable to bear our scrutiny.

Beerbohm’s identification with the Aesthetic movement could hardly have been more public, since he had contributed a piece to the first number of The Yellow Book entitled “A Defence of Cosmetics,” and been in thrall both to Beardsley and to Wilde.2 Is this why he looks so uncomfortable flaunting his identity as an Aesthete? Or does the portrait rather represent a failure of nerve on Nicholson’s part? Is it possible that he dared to paint his dandified friend only by showing him as diffident—or even contrite? Certainly the contrast with the confident swagger of Aesthetic portraits of the 1890s is striking, and can hardly have been accidental.

The portrait of Beerbohm was not Nicholson’s last word on Aestheticism. As late as 1917, he painted a full-length portrait of Whistler’s former studio assistant Walter Greaves, who as a young man in the 1860s had rowed his master out onto the Thames at night, while Whistler gathered the visual impressions he needed to paint his nocturnes. Now seventy-one years old, Greaves is still dressed in the Aesthetic uniform of frock coat and top hat, walking stick, gloves, and spats. But his narrow face looks drawn and bitter, and his clothes fit badly. According to Schwartz, Greaves was still vain enough to color his bald head with powdery charcoal, which one witness reported would begin to fall over his ears and clothes “towards mid-day.” His is the fate Dorian Gray did his best to avoid. Surely Greaves was the living embodiment of the Aesthetic cult, and Nicholson shows him as a man out of time, a dilapidated wreck whose superannuated values the Great War had swept away forever. What makes the picture so poignant—“with the tension and range of a novel,” as Schwartz puts it—is that Nicholson is close enough to those values to feel sympathy for his subject, but detached enough to see Greaves—and the Aestheticism he stood for—as ridiculous.

Nicholson began this process of detachment from the Aesthetes not in the Beggarstaff posters of 1894–1896 (with their daring use of empty space, static figures, and emphasis on the silhouette these are as radical in their way as Beardsley’s designs for The Yellow Book) but in the work created after Wilde’s trial and conviction. “An Alphabet” for example was published, together with “An Almanac of Twelve Sports” and “London Types,” in 1897– 1898. In all these woodcut prints, Nicholson not only avoided the stigma of effeminacy attached to the word “artist,” but also cleverly capitalized on the sudden collapse of the art-for-art’s-sake movement by providing the British public with an unimpeachably popular and patriotic art form, a visual counterpart to Rudyard Kipling’s poems and short stories.

We can also see Nicholson’s prints as an offshoot of British popular journalism in the 1890s. In the early 1880s London had six morning newspapers and four evening ones. By 1900 the number had risen to twenty-four, not counting the weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies.3 Following this unprecedented expansion, newspapers needed to fill space by publishing articles about the lives and lifestyles of the rich and famous—politicians, royalty, actors, artists, and sportsmen. The decade gave rise to an innovation in tabloid journalism that is still with us today: the celebrity interview. Nicholson developed its visual equivalent in a succession of highly popular woodcut prints. Printed slightly out of register, his studies of stars like Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt have a look, almost, of the newsprint of the period. Just as what was then called the “New Journalism” dispensed with the formal, orotund prose of the Times, so Nicholson’s woodcut portraits looked like nothing else in British art—topical, fresh, and as easy to “read” as the larger print in which the tabloids were published.

  1. 1

    Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (Knopf, 1988), p. 450.

  2. 2

    In an article published in the The Daily Chronicle on August 12, 1895, Beerbohm has attributed the outcry against Wilde to the philistinism of a public who, despite the fad for Aestheticism, were fundamentally indifferent to art. See John Stokes, In the Nineties (University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 9.

  3. 3

    Stokes, In the Nineties, pp. 17ff.

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