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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.

All his subjects were in the news. There are world leaders such as a dumpy Queen Victoria, an elegant Prince of Wales, a glamorous Kaiser, and even a doddery Pope. We can trace the rise of America on the world scene in his portraits of Thomas Edison, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mark Twain. During the Boer War, Nicholson quickly ran off portraits of plumed heroes like Lords Roberts and Kitchener, which he clearly intended to be sold to a flag-waving public. He also knew how to appeal in more subtle ways to the tastes of red-blooded Englishmen. There was nothing namby-pamby in the theme of his series “Almanac of Twelve Sports,” especially since many of the sports depicted are associated with the British, such as cricket and golf. And my guess is that many of the purchasers of his print of a bulldog were patriots with no special interest in art.

Perhaps the most impressive of all Nicholson’s series is the “London Types” of 1898. These hark back to Francis Wheatley’s eighteenth-century decorative prints, the “Cries of London.” Instead of Wheatley’s sentimentalized street criers, Nicholson depicts a rough guardsman, a crass coster girl, a sinister cabbie, and a feisty barmaid. Nicholson’s prints look familiar to modern viewers because they resemble nothing so much as Andy Warhol’s silk-screen portraits. What’s more, they add Nicholson’s name to a distinguished list of artists and writers whose work celebrates the city of London and its rougher inhabitants: Hogarth, Dickens, Orwell, Sickert, and Gilbert and George.

To achieve the immediacy that enables the viewer to take in these prints at a glance, Nicholson drew on his early experience as a designer of posters. The designs he created are so bold they could be seen in a shop window from the top deck of a moving bus. Again like Warhol, he concentrated on surface appearance, not psychological penetration, and minimized narrative, expression, gesture, and color. In many ways the figures in his woodcuts look more like those on a pack of playing cards than like conventional decorative prints. As Schwartz sums them up,

We seem invariably to be looking at a quintessential version of a particular person or subject—at an unjaundiced, unexaggerated, impartial, keenly appreciative, and shrewd assessment that leaves a viewer with a sense of wonder at an artist who, in his twenties at the time, was both so engaged and objective.

Had Nicholson developed even a few of the implications of the prints of the 1890s in his later art, he would today be a household name. Instead, he gave up serious printmaking in 1901 to concentrate on painting—and specifically on the traditional genres of portraiture, still life, and landscape.

To characterize Nicholson’s work in the twentieth century is to say what it was not. He belonged to no movement and is associated with no style, had nothing new to say about the use of color or the representation of space or form, responded neither to Post-Impressionism nor to Fauvism, Cubism, Abstraction, or Expressionism.4 It is almost as if the distance he created in the woodcut prints between himself and the Aesthetes was not distant enough; in turning to painting he eradicated from his art most qualities that could be characterized as progressive.

This meant painting representational pictures in the bravura style associated with essentially conservative artists such as Sargent or Giovanni Boldini from an older generation and with William Orpen and John Lavery from his own. The work of all these artists represents the end of an older tradition, not the beginning of a new one. This is the reason why Nicholson’s paintings (but not his prints) have fallen off the radar screen of art history. While dealers and collectors have always esteemed his immaculately executed landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, his pictures have been more or less ignored by art historians and curators. It is Schwartz’s admirable ambition to rescue a fine but hard-to-pigeonhole painter from this comprehensive indifference.

3.

A few years ago the Guggenheim Museum mounted a show called “1900,” which looked at the condition of painting and sculpture at the turn of the century by simply showing the art that was being made in Barcelona, Melbourne, Helsinki, and New York at the very moment when Monet was painting Charing Cross Bridge and Picasso was exploring the dance halls of Montmartre. A glorious hodgepodge of pictures from roughly the same date but of every conceivable origin and school, the show asked us to consider the value we place on originality in art. Here is an example. Around 1900 progressive artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, and Munch were attempting in their paintings to analyze the nature of visual, spiritual, and psychological experience. But at the same time, Jean-Leon Gérome and Thomas Eakins were bringing to a close the nineteenth century’s dialogue between painting and photography. Is one group of artists better than the other, as art historians used automatically to assume, or just different? As to Nicholson, is it right that his paintings should be written out of the history of art because they broke no new ground? Or is it not a characteristic of the British School that some of its best artists, from Blake to Lucian Freud, tend to be loners?

Schwartz asks us to look at what Nicholson did, not at what he didn’t do. But this is not as easy as it sounds. One reason why the oil paintings have received so little attention is that their visual qualities are so difficult either to translate into words or to place in a wider context. In his still lifes, for example, Nicholson doesn’t paint anything very special—ceramic figures, Chinese bowls, arrangements of flowers, silver teapots and silver trays—the kind of elegant bric-a-brac you might find in a middle-class drawing room. But with their intimate scale and delicious palette of deep blacks, rich blues, and cool silvers, these sensuous little studies fairly make the mouth water. In a visual journey of only a few inches Nicholson will play off light against dark, solid against void, transparency against opacity, and differentiate too between textures that reflect the light and those that absorb it.

Though Schwartz doesn’t mention it, Nicholson was the first significant English artist to paint still lifes in oil. There had been occasional flower painters, such as Mary Moser, a founding member of the Royal Academy, and there were relatively minor Victorian painters who painted bird’s nests and dead game, but there is no equivalent, in the Royal Academy or elsewhere, of Chardin, Goya, Courbet, Fantin Latour, Manet, or Cézanne. Seen in this light, Nicholson may be said to have extended the very subject matter of English art, and prepared the way for the work both of Matthew Smith and of William’s own son Ben Nicholson, whose white-on-white reliefs, though abstract, are essentially still lifes.5

As a landscape painter, Nicholson is also, in his own way, quietly original. From his first aerial view of Winchelsea painted in 1901 to such later gems as Plaza de Toros, Malaga of 1935, he evolved a precise and expressive painting style characterized by his tendency to show a scene, as Schwartz points out, as though we were looking at it from both ends of a telescope at the same time. His landscapes depict vast spaces seen from a great height. It is only on second or third glance that we realize they are also alive with miniaturized figures, trees, and animals.

We can’t make the same claims of originality for his portraits, but it would be a chilly customer indeed who didn’t respond to Nicholson’s juicily painted 1908 conversation piece showing the Earl of Plymouth and his family in the vast drawing room of their country house. With shadowy figures half hidden within the deeply recessed space, the picture epitomizes the high Edwardian moment. Nicholson gives the women in their languorous tea gowns a kind of nonchalant glamour, achieved through the controlled application of buttery paint, which itself acts as a perfect metaphor for their aristocratic self-assurance. As well as the portraits of Beerbohm and Greaves, a handful of unforgettable works place Nicholson among the best English portrait painters of his time. The garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, as plump as Mrs. Tiggywinkle, is shown in profile, but something of the steel in her character is suggested by the way she presses the tips of her fingers together as though she can’t wait for the tiresome sitting to be over. And in his monumental portrait group of 1918, six officers of the Canadian Headquarters staff stand in front of a mural- sized aerial photograph of the demolished medieval cloth hall at Ypres, its destruction by German troops being one of the reasons these Canadian soldiers are fighting on European soil (see illustration on page 22).

4.

Schwartz argues that one reason for the decline in William Nicholson’s reputation is the bad press he received from his son Ben—a more ambitious, thrusting artist than his father, who never saw a committee he didn’t like or a manifesto he wouldn’t sign. William wasn’t, by Schwartz’s account, a faithful husband or a particularly attentive father. Ben, the eldest child, felt protective of his neglected mother, Mabel. Ordinary family tensions turned lethal when, within a year and a half after Mabel’s death in the epidemic of Spanish flu in 1918, William married Edith Stuart Wortley—a young widow with whom Ben had had a serious flirtation. It was the resentful Ben, Schwartz thinks, who has left us with the impression that William is the ultimate Edwardian painter—self-satisfied, easy on the eye, and essentially mindless. When, for example, the art dealer Lillian Browse wrote about Nicholson in a 1956 essay, she echoed Ben’s estimation of William when she described him as a man who “recognized and accepted his limitations” but who “remained true to himself. No more can be asked of any human being.”

And no faint praise has ever damned a painter more effectively. Yet though I don’t doubt Schwartz’s theory of Oedipal rivalry, I wonder whether it is possible that Ben and Lillian Browse got it approximately right. William is a wonderful painter, but the very model of a major minor artist. He was not by nature a speculative, questioning painter, but you would never mistake a still life or landscape by William Nicholson for one by any other artist. His contribution to the history of art lies in the distinct artistic personality with which he stamped each of his works. The pleasure is wholly visual, never intellectual—as it almost always is, for example, with Walter Sickert. Even in the interiors painted during the Great War, such as Café de Paris and Ballroom in Air Raid Schwartz rightly sees no subtext or metaphor, reading them as studies of space and light and the relation of one color to others.

Casting about for artists to compare to Nicholson, Schwartz comes up with the American realist painters known as the Ash Can School or “The Eight”—John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Luks, and George Bellows. That seems about right, except that The Eight paint on a larger, more confident scale and depict a dirty, smudged world, not the exaltation of the Sussex or Wiltshire Downs. Nicholson’s art is underpinned by Aestheticism, which was remote from the swashbuckling Americans.

One of the accusations Ben made against William as a painter was that he lacked “ruthlessness.” The same could be said of Sanford Schwartz’s criticism. Though he has written a lively book, he always plays fair, never overstating or exaggerating his case. To describe his hero’s paintings, he constantly uses the word “satisfying”—a double-edged adjective when applied to a work of art, because it implies that the picture doesn’t disturb, ruffle, or question.

As a result, Schwartz’s book, while providing indispensable information about Nicholson, did not change my mind about him. It’s still the woodcut prints of the 1890s that represent his best and most original work, in my view, though there are fine pictures from every stage of his career. Schwartz achieves his purpose in drawing our attention to the pleasures of the later work in oils, and he does so in spirited, conversational prose. My one serious quarrel with his book is not with the author or his subject but with the publishers. Yale University Press has served a fine writer badly by providing dark smudgy illustrations, many the size of postage stamps. When Schwartz is describing individual paintings so beautifully, and the reader tries to match the image to his words, we find ourselves constantly frustrated. Schwartz has helped to organize the show of Nicholson’s work that will open at the Royal Academy in October. Let us hope that the catalog illustrations to that show, at least, will be a feast for the eyes.

  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.

  4. 4

    On the other hand, when Bloomsbury painters like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant did respond to Cubism and Abstraction they did so in ways that indicate neither fully understood what they were doing.

  5. 5

    Professor Allen Staley, who kindly answered my query on this subject by e-mail, points out that in Scottish art of the fin de siècle, the situation is slightly different, for Scottish artists, as always, looked directly to France for their instruction and inspiration. He also notes that English collectors bought French still lifes, as in the case of Edwin Edwards’s patronage of Fantin Latour.

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