Sunday, 20 May 2012

William Nicholson: A Square Book of Influences


One day in the very early 1890s, William Nicholson was looking round Ridge's bookshop in Newark in Nottinghamshire, when he came across a collection of old woodblocks. He must have examined them with interest and care because he went back to the studio he had set up at his parents' house on London Road, planed down a surface of a piece of wood, and set about altering the course of European printmaking with a penknife and a nail.


Remember, what he had seen were only the blocks; he had never seen the image they produced. Nor are of any of us likely to see those first blocks of his own nor the proofs he took from them. We have no idea about the ink or the paper he used, or whether or not he used a press. His first surviving print comes from 1893 and shows Primrose Hill Farm at Ruislip in Surrey. Quite simply the woodcut memorialises the house he rented that spring. For he had to live there to establish residence for the banns to be read at the local church so that he could marry. (Mabel Pryde and himself were about to elope.)


But Primrose Hill Farm, Ruislip does gives us a clue about what kind of blocks he had seen in the bookshop. It is in the emphatic,  faux-naif chapbook style made use of by Joseph Crawhall, an approach Nicholson went on to look at from all angles. There was nothing in the least chapbook about Nicholson. True to the nineties, Nicholson was a dandy, sophisticated and debonaire. The profiles he used in the first and third images are not exactly half. Nor are the ones used by Mabel Royds in Girl with a goat nor by Emil Orlik in his Portrait of Bernard Pankok. Nicholson adapted the chapbook style with inventiveness and panache. Both Royds and Orlik took the lesson to heart.

This gives the lie to the old belief that artists are influenced by elders and betters. The influences that come an artists way are just as much by chance as by design. All three of them happened to be in London during 1898. By then, the New Review had published Nicolson's images of Queen Victoria and Rudyard Kipling, and Heinemann had brought out An Alphabet in time for Christmas,1897.

This says a fair deal about Nicholson's approach. These were prints intended for both children and for adults, some more, some less. What they all had in common was appeal. It is sometimes said that Orlik was in London to visit Nicholson. (I can't say I have ever come across any reference in English but this information may have filtered through from German sources. I don't know.) But Orlik certainly made friends at some point with Frank Morley Fletcher and by that time also Royds had been taught colour woodcut by Fletcher.

Friend and teacher he may have been, but neither Royds not Orlik were any more attracted to the art that Fletcher made than many readers of this blog have been. (I have to say, it took a long time for me to get round to doing Fletcher and once I did, some readers were, let's say, unenthusiastic. Fletcher was entranced by colour. He was also a picturemaker, the very thing John Dixon Batten had warned artists against when they came to make prints. Nicholson, Orlik and Royds, all of them in their differing ways, were graphic artists to the core.
But Royds and Orlik were also something else. They were modern in a way that Nicholson never really was. When the woodcut of Kipling was commissioned, Nicholson went down to Rottingdean near Brighton where Kipling was staying at the Burne Jones' house to make drawings of him. The print itself, though, still remains a type, recognisable but impersonal. When Orlik came to make his short series of woodcuts of his friends after his visit to Japan, they draw on Nicholson's formality and spare line but are never anything less than personal, never more so than is his moving portrait of Ferdinand Hodler (see 'O was for Orlik, October, 2010).


The same was true for Royds. Both paid due attention to Nicholson's innovation and although his graphic work is usually described as woodcut, he almost always worked on the endgrain of boxwood. He may have mimicked the broader cutting of work on the plank to gain his famous bold use of black and white areas and his selective line but his prints are engravings. Even more, he only made one true colour woodcut (The fisher, 1897) where he employed separate blocks for colour. Where they were not reproduced as lithographs, all his other prints were hand-coloured (by the artist himself). His followers were true to the ethos of the arts and crafts movement: it was all integrated. Nicholson, in the end, just wanted to paint.


  1. Another wonderfully executed and illuminated posting Charles. I think you have become quite adept at drawing the thread of graphic printmakers both domestic and international and helping us to join the dots.

    Your constant discovery of the arc of printmaking is a joy to read. I am never very sure of how I feel about Nicholson. On his best days his works are wonderful with a simplicity that belies their complexity. On his worst day he is an illustrated magazine contributor who lacks shade and complexity. I often think that of all the British woodcut artists, his works are the most Germanic, and there is more than a touch of Orlik in his works...and by that I mean the very best of Orlik.

    I think sadly because of the alphabet works, Nicholson has largely been sidelined...rightly or wrongly. M is for marginalized....and D is for dated. It's a shame in the end, because as your posting amply points out...there is plenty to recommend Nicholson to the modern collector, and it doesn't have to have a letter.

  2. This last contribution is reading like a novel and educating like a textbook. It's the analysis and placing in context with time and other artists that I hope is forecasting the contents and quality of "the Book". What Bach was to classical music, Nicholson was to Modern Printmaking. And Haji-Baba the new Malcolm Salaman. Thank you Charles for sharing your insight and knowledge !

  3. Gerrie, the second time I went into Local Studies at Nottingham Library, the staff brought out ALL their Nicholson material, but I did draw most on Colin Campbell's excellent 'William Nicholson, the graphic work'. I could only really suggest the bigger picture in this post. I could have said alot more - and probably will.

  4. And Clive, I share your ambivalance about Nicholson. He was somewhere between a nineties publishing phenomenon and a modern original printmaker. To do him justice, he needs placing in context, which I didn't have the space for: everything from the Kelmscott Press to Batten's fairy tales to the Yellow Book. Fine books and fine illustration were in the air.

    Also with more space, I could have talked about the greater effect he had in Europe, particularly on Secessionist printmaking in Vienna. But here in Britain, he had a great effect on popular decorative image-making right through to Verpilleux, Claud Lovat Fraser and early Hall Thorpe. He was very effective in what he did over less than ten years.

    He was of course also encouraged by others to go on (Heinemann, Kipling) and he needed to make a living. It accounts for the uneveness you've pointed out. But we must be charitable.

  5. Fascinating post about an important artist. You're right to note the faux-naif element in his "woodcuts" (and I never knew they were actually engravings from the endgrain). But more importantly you show how Nicholson both drew from and influenced European printmaking - and for any British artist of his day to have an influence on the Continent, they had to be right at the top their game.

  6. The images being available as lithographs helped to make them better known abroad. But London had also become a focus of attention after the founding of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1896. Also all the new magazines like Pan, The Studio, Ver Sacrum and the Yellow Book helped to build the sense of a young international movement - as you know.But he must already have been well-known through the work of the Beggarstaff Brothers.

    It's a shame I couldn't find online images of early work. You would have found it interesting. Campbell is well worth a look.

  7. I should also say the portrait of Josef Hoffman (in the spotted blue necktie) from 1903 makes a conscious link between London and the Vienna Secession. Orlik was by that time capable of sophisticated colour woodcuts and etchings but opted for a simplified style for almost all the woodcut portraits.

  8. Hi there i believe i have 2 printing blocks by william Nicholson could someone help me with some more info please? Jenniacton@hotmail