The head of the family

ARTS EXHIBITIONS William Nicholson was more than just the father of Ben, as a new show at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, proves

Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:07

THERE ARE a number of dynasties in British art, and perhaps the most powerful of them is the Nicholson family. William Nicholson, who is the subject of a lovely exhibition at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, was born in 1872, studied under the Victorian painter Hubert von Herkomer and then went to the Academie Julian, where he met the Scottish painter James Pryde and promptly married his sister Mabel. Their son, the painter Ben Nicholson, was born in 1894. Ben was married to Barbara Hepworth, and all their children had artistic careers. One of them is married to Sir Alan Bowness, former Director of the Tate Gallery.

There are other Nicholsons too, all in the art world, perhaps because they've tended to marry fellow art students. The dealer John Kasmin married a Nicholson - Jane. Their son is a painter who is married to another painter. So it goes on, and the founder of the line is a little forgotten. "Father of the more famous Ben" was a phrase that got attached to William Nicholson in the Thirties, when the older artist's reputation was at its low point. Certainly the son was a dramatic figure, a modernist abstractionist and evidently a leader. His father was by contrast a conservative and a Victorian. Today we don't think in these terms. Ben still gets more attention, but William is more loved. As people now always say, he's a painter's painter. His son was - how should one put it? - an architect's painter, whose instinct for perfection and authority was too strictly planned out.

William Nicholson strikes me as a highly un-authoritarian painter. Was he not, early in his career, when with Pryde he formed the duo of the "Beggarstaff Brothers", the author of that splendid poster of Queen Victoria looking like a tea cosy? Of course he spent much of his life painting society portraits, and he had little interest in modern movements or the general politics of art; but still he painted just as he pleased, with little regard for anyone else, a fair amount of humour, more than a touch of dandyism and an instinctive love for his medium.

All these qualities are there in the Cambridge exhibition (which has been lovingly selected by Hilary Lane) and are the more evident because these are canvases that Nicholson did for his own enjoyment. All are small, or at any rate not very big, and they are all landscapes or still-lives. Characteristically, the landscapes are of the south-country downland near the Nicholson home and the still-lives are of jugs, plates, flowers and cutlery. These are not elevated subjects but the pictures are anything but humble. There is something even immodest in their casual flair. A number of the still-lives are deliciously tactile, reminding one that Nicholson was a dedicated sensualist in his private life. The landscapes are on the whole drier pictures. There's still something both off-hand and concentrated in their character. Landscape is not an ideal genre in which to exhibit dandyism, but Nicholson had at least a sense of how to do it.

The earliest landscapes in the show seem directly descended from Whistler and his "Nocturnes". Viola on the Downs of 1909 must have darkened over the years but one can see how the thinned-down paint and cool green tones responded to Whistler's paintings of the Thames. However, Whistler wasn't really Nicholson's master. Perhaps he didn't have one. He liked to say that he was self-taught, meaning that he was without obligations. His work has similarities with that of his friends William Orpen and Augustus John: perhaps a matter of general period style. I think Nicholson must have admired Manet more than any other modern artist. The more sumptuous of the still-lives tell us this. On the other hand the mature landscapes do seem to be without influence, and therefore oddly out of time.

Judd's Farm, for instance, we know to have been painted in 1912. Stylistically, it might be dated at any time in the subsequent 40 years. All we see is a farmhouse on the downs, three outbuildings, the sea behind and the sky above. Here is an extremely economical painting, both for aesthetic reasons and because Nicholson liked to do these pictures in one sitting. He had canvases ready (see how many of them are 33 x 41 centimetres) that would fit into the lid of his paint-box. A folding stool for the better inspection of outside subjects and away he would go, happy as only a painter can be. He didn't need to draw his subjects first, and such drawings are not really imaginable. This is art of immediate painterly application.

Unlike some artists, Nicholson was quite relaxed about home-life going on around him while he worked. A fair number of people made up his home circle and were dependent on him, first of all his wife and their four children, one of whom, Nancy, married Robert Graves and gave him grandchildren. Then there were his second wife Edie, who painted under the name Elizabeth Drury, and Ben's first wife, the painter Winifred Dacre. The needs of these people were mostly met by grandfather William's commercial practice as a portrait painter. Sometimes you sense domestic activities in the still-lives, but not that often; and it's little wonder that Nicholson was glad to spend a large proportion of his later life lunching and drinking with non-family chums in the Savile Club, where there's a nice little collection of his work.

Hilary Lane writes that she hadn't much knowledge of Nicholson before she began work on this show. I don't think there's anyone much - apart from members of his family and the dealer William Darby - who can claim an expert knowledge of this considerable artist. No doubt his primary portrait activity has obscured Nicholson's qualities from historians of modern art. Surely we ought to look at the portraits again, especially if they have the same touch, light and colour that we see in the still- lives. For understandable reasons a number of these little pictures of objects are like wonderful passages that occur in grander paintings of important people in ceremonial poses. Nicholson was too clever to make this partialness into a fault, but still the thought remains.

Especially when we look at the virtuoso handling of silver and gold on white linen tablecloths. Paradoxically, Nicholson was less interested in light in his landscapes than in his table-top pictures. He particularly fancied containers that reflect light. Hence his fondness for lustreware. But there's nothing intrinsically posh in his repertoire of subjects and there's no jewellery. I suppose he tired of such things when he was doing the portraits. I note that one picture of a gold lustreware jug belongs to the Queen Mother. What a lucky old lady she is, to possess such a loveable painting. Did Nicholson ever portray her, in her younger days? It's possible, and they could have had a good chat about the problems of extended families.

! 'William Nicholson - Landscape and Still-Life': Kettle's Yard, Cambridge (01223 352124), to 25 Feb.

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