Obituary: E. Q. Nicholson
Monday 14 September 1992
E. Q. NICHOLSON was a designer and painter whose work in both genres was marked by a natural lyricism and a delight in space, light and the movement of line.
The daughter of the novelist LH Myers, she grew up in a circle which included artists such as Frank Dobson and Cedric Morris. After training in Paris she worked on batik for Marion Dorn and designed rugs. Her interest in images of the natural and flowing motion of birds, fish and animals was evident from the first and would later translate into explorations of plant form, both in paintings and in her best-known applied design, 'Runner Bean' (c1950), which appeared both as furnishing fabric (used in HM Yacht Britannia) and as one of her hand-printed wallpapers for Cole & Son. Charac teristically, this design conveys at once both the thrusting life of the plant and pleasure in the irregular forms of its outgrowths.
In 1931 she married the architect Kit Nicholson, youngest son of the painters William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. She assisted in the office he ran with Hugh Casson, which produced distinctive Modernist buildings that were pioneering for their time. The combination in Kit Nicholson's architecture of control and attention to detail with a sense of luminosity and openness is paralleled in his wife's designs and paintings and in the interiors that she created throughout her life, whether professionally (as in Kit's building at Dunstable for the London Gliding Club, and in other peoples' houses) or in the many houses of her own.
In the 1930s, 'EQ' (who was always known thus to friends and family, rather than by her given names, Elsie Queen) began to use lino blocks for the fabrics which she designed and printed. In the 1940s and 1950s she made fabric designs for machine printing, for Edinburgh Weavers. Thereafter her work as a designer abated until the 1980s brought a marked revival of both interest and activity; she reworked some of her earlier designs for new uses and executed and exhibited tufted rugs to designs by her son Timothy.
The strangest aspect of the revival of awareness of EQ Nicholson's art was the late rediscovery of her work as a painter, which was confined to some 15 years considerable activity from 1941, and at the time received one exhibition, at the Hanover Gallery, in London, in 1950. Unmentioned by her, her works in gouache, crayon and collage were discovered many years later in a drawer. They revealed a directness and vitality; the warmth of the response they received pleased but also astonished her - she never seemed quite able to believe in it.
A central quality of these paintings is their infectious feeling of pleasure in the vessels and materials of everyday domestic existence, and in their use. Still life is sometimes elided with the mysterious uninhabited landscape that was another of her genres. Her kitchen paintings excite the gastronomic as well as the visual sense. These show her use of paint and collage at its most bold and instinctive, giving the greatest freedom to that juxtaposition of patterns and textures in variety which characterised all her art. A conspicuous influence was Braque, whose work moved her to tears in the late 1940s.
EQ's own visual instincts merged naturally with the sensibility of the family she married into, for example in her love of spots and stripes, of visual rhymes, of highlights, of a certain direct simplicity and of glowing yet subtle colour.
In the work reproduced here, both the double transparency and the device of a picture within a picture are typical, while the fabric, with its syncopated pattern, was designed by her husband's brother, Ben Nicholson, and printed by their sister Nancy.
An important ingredient in EQ Nicholson's art is an implicit sense of fun, which was also strongly evident when one met her. The painter John Craxton has written eloquently of the influence that this and her zest for all the arts had on his own early development. Her lively humour was allied with a certain charming vagueness and idiosyncracy, which perhaps underlie Fiona MacCarthy's description of her as 'deeply enigmatic'. In 1988 EQ's younger daughter, Louisa Creed, summed up her personality in these words:
She has magnetism and charm; she is scintillating and humorous; she is (usually) fun to be with but, to balance all these fascinating qualities, she is also impulsive, restless, demanding. The glittering sunlight of her approval is matched by the heavily undisguised clouds of her disapproval. . . She knows how to laugh at herself and would rather be painted in dazzling, fitful colours than in benign, subdued tones. Another extraordinary thing about our mother is that fear, and anxiety, appear to be entirely absent from her nature.
She will sail through the most terrible ordeals without a moment of worry or doubt; she will never fuss or wonder whether she is doing the right thing. She simply does it, and anybody else involved can take it or leave it.
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