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.