A Painter's 'Fastidious Economy'

HOW do you write something about a painter whose magic is to be found in the way he makes paint celebrate the shining surfaces, the multiple reflections, of a silver teapot? Or the sweeping silhouette of a low, rounded hillside against an evening sky, with below it the rich green, stretching out smoothly, of a commonplace meadow? Here is an art of something-out-of-nothing, an artist who finds his vision, his significant image, in the mere skin of the world, in the surface appearances of everyday objects, of the unexceptional landscape.

English artist William Nicholson (1872-1949), by all accounts, was not someone who liked art talk. He said extraordinarily little about his own work. He expected his paintings to "speak" for themselves in their own language - the language of painterly realism, of paint-erly idealism, of painterly sensuousness. He was as directly concerned with the purely visual as a musician is with sound. The clumsiness, slowness, and inadequacy of words, with the rare exception of a pointed remark or a joke, must hav e seemed to him inappropriate to the act, or at any rate the effect, of painting.

The companion of his later years was novelist Marguerite Steen, certainly a woman of words. She wrote a book about him. And although she found little to quote, insights into Nicholson's attitudes are there to be spotted. She points out, for example, that as a schoolboy, this Nottinghamshire-born painter was taken sketching by his art teacher among the impressive hills of the English Lake District. But, she adds, the "beauties" of the area "never took hold of him. It is a district overpictured 201> ; as he says, 'the picture is there without painting it.' "

So it is the painting that makes the picture. As a clue to Nicholson's unpretentiousness, and of his conviction that the subject is not quite the main point of a painting, this remark is revealing. His preference was for the "unpromising subject," the gentle curve of the Wiltshire Downs, for example, undramatic, even unpicturesque in themselves, but an ideal vehicle for a painter whose intent is to convey just the right light, just the true shadow.

What one remembers above all from a Nicholson painting is, in fact, his catching of light and shadow and their play on a surface - the slick shine of red patent leather ladies' boots, the intense color of a shadow cast by some object or figure on a wall, the silver of moonlight on a still ocean, the bright highlights and transparency of a glass jug. He had a straight, uncomplex delight in luster and gleam and shine. He concentrated on that.

Portrait painting, particularly in the Edwardian period before the World War I, was Nicholson's bread and butter: He was no Bohemian and chose a high standard of living. At that time he had a steady stream of notable sitters. Some art historians and critics, not entirely persuaded by his work, have damned him with faint praise, or settled for a formula which somehow confuses his elegance of living - his appearance of the flaneur - with the style of his painting. Frances Spalding, for instance, in her bo ok "British Art Since 1900," calls him a "quintessential Edwardian" and uses phrases like "studied elegance" and "suggestions of ease and luxury."

To a degree William Nicholson brought such dismissives upon himself. Those writing about him seem unable to resist mentioning his white duck trousers and spotted shirt. But to suggest that Nicholson's approach to painting was somehow lightweight, because of his sartorial preferences, is silly. He was an extrovert; he joked and chatted while painting portraits. His daughter, Liza, describes him as virtually licking his lips while he painted, relishing the luscious quality of turning subject into paint. S he says, "he was a sensuous and not an intellectual painter." There was an element of performance about his work.

His paintings look extraordinarily spontaneous. But Steen continually emphasizes the time he spent on them; portraits took a vast number of sittings. She writes: "None of William's work has ever come to him easily. The seeming lightsomeness - particularly noticeable in some of his later Still Life - covers an agony of effort 201> . 'I have to learn it all first.' When 'learnt,' the final utterance is swift and sure - rather like a stammerer who, after long training, is at last delivered of a perfect sentence." But Nicholson was not the kind of painter who wanted the world to see, in his work, any evidence of that "agony of effort."

Looking at some of his earliest work, the work on which his considerable reputation was originally based, shows clearly that what was involved in this apparent ease of statement was not so much a pleasure in clever style, but a scrupulous determination to do without the unnecessary so that the painting is free to sing. This was a rebellion against Victorian painters who packed into their pictures as much miniscule detail as possible, smothering them with it.

Nicholson's first success was in collaboration with his brother-in-law James Pryde. They made, under the assumed name of "J. & W. Beggarstaff," a number of highly original posters that have found an honored place in the history of the poster.

Bold and spare, these posters displayed an acute eye for the balancing of simplified shapes and essential outlines. Where detail or even a contour line could be left out, it was, letting the viewer's certainty or guesswork supply what his eye didn't actually see: the line describing a leg or a shoulder. Forms were flattened as far as possible, becoming silhouettes either dark or light, and so the play of shapes across the surface became crucial.

Nicholson then went on to make some picture books - an "Alphabet," for instance, and a collection of "London Types" - with "woodcuts" (which were, technically speaking, wood engravings). They were colored, in a few special cases by hand in watercolor, but in the main by lithography. Like the earlier posters, the surface design, the strong disposition of shapes, large blacks in contrast to large whites, characterize these prints. Once again the extraneous is cut out. Economy was clearly equated with stre ngth of image.

Although oil painting is an entirely different technique from wood engraving, Nicholson's "fastidious economy" was not to be abandoned because of a change of medium.

When he told Steen that he had to "learn" something exhaustively before painting it, he presumably meant that he was studying how a particular subject could be most effectively translated onto canvas, into pigment, brushmark, and shapes disposed across the surface. The complex distractions and multiplicity of little details the eye perceives evidently needed selection and arrangement for them to work as a painting.

He continued his fascination for shadows - for the reductive character of a figure's shadow cast on a wall, an object's on a table. Steen was intrigued when she saw him start by painting a shadow of something in a picture before he painted the thing itself. He occasionally painted on glass, and in this case a shadow playing over an object has to be painted first; this doubtless challenged him.

One of William's children, Ben Nicholson, who became an artist of international standing himself, summed it up laconically enough: "Behind his personality lay a very simple, direct painterly approach: he merely wanted to paint."

Ben Nicholson also said that he himself owed a lot to his father, but his own work developed in ways that William Nicholson could hardly go along with. Cubism and abstraction were part of a revolutionary modernity and internationalism that Ben explored in his own way. Not William. He would sometimes even drop humorous comments at the expense of "the cubists."

The elder Nicholson drew his inspiration as a young artist from Whistler and Manet - and through them from Velazquez. The Cubism that grew out of Cezanne's quite different approach to the visible world was not for him. Perhaps it was a matter of choice rather than modernity, however.

His preference was for the surface, for painterliness; the cubists were more concerned with layers, with structures, and with drawing. They were intent on describing things from all sides. Nicholson was concerned with what the eye saw directly from the front - the skin and outward texture of the mushroom on the plate rather than its dissectible, three-dimensional, tactile form.

To place a William Nicholson still life next to a Picasso or Braque cubist still life would be instructive indeed about the differences between artists. But in his own unpretentious way, Nicholson was an experimenter. What he never did was simply repeat a practiced formula. His style may have been fluent, but it wasn't some taken-for-granted trick of the hand.

William Nicholson's lack of interest in what his son called "the universal contemporary spirit" has, however, rather too inevitably meant that his admirers feel the need to apologize for his modest Englishness and "regressive" attitudes. But his art has already quietly outlived its period, at least, and its "Englishness" can be challenged. Nicholson's subject matter has no more to do with period or place than does the work of other fine still-life painters - 17th-century Dutch or 19th-century French. Hi s landscapes have been compared with Constable's, but equally they show links with Monet and Corot.

It is probably time for a large-scale exhibition to reassess William Nicholson's art. Much is still in private collections or buried in the storage vaults of institutions. Small shows occasionally take place in Britain. Catalogs have accompanied these shows. But after a long gap since Lillian Browse put together her Catalogue Raisonne (1956), new books are starting to appear: two by Colin Campbell on "The Beggarstaff Posters" and Nicholson's graphic work, and even more promisingly, research is under way under the auspices of "The William Nicholson Trust" to produce a book with a lot of good color reproductions. That is certainly needed.

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