Obituary:Jim Nicholson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The National Trust for Scotland, during a time of burgeoning expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, was fortunate in bringing together a number of very different, but idealistic men and women, devoted not only to the built heritage of Scotland but to landscape and countryside. Prominent among them was Jim Nicholson, the trust's first Art Designer, for whom the post of Art Director was later specially created.

Nicholson was in his own right a landscape painter of distinction. This year's National Trust for Scotland Edinburgh Festival exhibition contains some of Nicholson's pictures. His watercolours in particular of the St Kilda archipelago to which he devoted so much of his energy and Inverewe Gardens, a National Trust property on the west coast, are quite simply beautiful.

The National Trust for Scotland was founded in 1931, 35 years after its English counterpart. Besides managing 18 major houses, it is the fourth largest landowner - after the Forestry Commission, the Duke of Buccleuch and the Scottish Office - in Scotland. Nicholson was responsible for the production of all its booklets, guidebooks, publicity leaflets and advertising.

Sir Jamie Stormonth Darling, the trust's long-term Director, describes Nicholson as "the best art director the National Trust for Scotland could ever have found - not only in his own work, but in his leadership and guidance of his team, which because of his excellence expanded to six. The whole standard of National Trust productions and publications rose to great heights under him."

"He got the best out of people," said Mrs Vivien Bremner, a member of his staff. At the same time he was a perfectionist and anything that was simply out of tune would be required to be done and quite often done yet again.

Jim Nicholson was born in Otley, Yorkshire, where his father was branch manager of a bank and his mother, a Graham, was of Scottish descent. After attending Prince Henry's Grammar School in Otley, he succumbed to parental pressure to go into the bank - and loathed it. At 17 in 1941, he was almost thankful to be called up and trained to become a pilot officer in Bomber Command.

As a 20-year-old, he was in a Lancaster Bomber as radio operator over Dresden. My first serious conversation with him was shortly after he had joined the National Trust staff, about St Valentine's Day 1965. After we had done our business, prompted by the fact that I was a young MP and German re- armament was one of the great concerns of the day for my party, out of the blue Nicholson said: "20 years ago last night, I was bombing Dresden!"

For a man who loved beautiful things, of course, the destruction of the Baroque city and the Frauenkirche was a catastrophe. But what really moved him was the massive slaughter - and not only of German civilians. He told me that he felt guilty - irrational though it may have been - that so many of his contemporaries in bomber crews, lads little different from him, would never return home. Later, he thought the denigration in some quarters of "Bomber" Harris was uncalled for, but that the real lesson was for political leaders to avoid war in the first place - "because not only nuclear weapons but all modern war can be unutterably dreadful".

The experience of Dresden gave him, though he would have been too embarrassed to make a point of it, other than in private conversation, a desire for service to other people.

In 1945, he returned to the bank and attended evening classes at Leeds School of Art. Soon he realised that banking was not his metier and joined a Leeds advertising agency as a graphic artist. On promotion, and coming to Edinburgh in 1955 to work with McCallum Advertising, after nine years he persuaded the National Trust for Scotland that they needed an artist designer - which they certainly did.

Nicholson contributed to the artistic life of Scotland and for several years in the early 1960s he had his own country dance band which was in great demand and made gramophone records. Music was a great passion and as his friend Allan Farquharson said at his memorial service: "Over the years he developed what he casually called his 'slide-shows'. These were the marriage of his wonderful photography with perfectly matched music, and I am sure that many people were entranced by these audio-visual productions. No one can have had any idea of the hundreds of hours of work he put in to make the perfect combination. He went all over the country giving these shows, at no charge, to audiences from small women's guilds to the Usher Hall, the great concert hall in Edinburgh."

Jim Nicholson was a superb ambassador - at large - for the cause of the National Trust for Scotland.

Tam Dalyell

James Hugh Nicholson, graphic designer and artist: born Otley, Yorkshire 21 December 1924; Art Designer and Art Director, National Trust for Scotland 1964-83; died Edinburgh 25 July 1996.