William Nicholson Painter: Paintings, Woodcuts, Writings, Photographs
Giles de la Mare Publishers Ltd., London
292 pp., 45
In their recollections of the English painter William Nicholson (1872-1949), more than one of his friends, relations, and acquaintances have thought it significant to mention his fondness for throwing the boomerang.
For instance, Ursula Ridley (nee Lutyens, daughter of the architect), who before World War I underwent many sittings for her portrait by Nicholson, said:
"In the even-ings, dressed in immaculate white duck trousers and a spotted silk dressing gown, he would throw a boomerang on the lawn with perfect skill; or throw a card round the room in the same way to return to his hand; or play with his enormous cup and ball. He had great dexterity."
Dexterity. Not just of the hand but of the eye.
Nicholson's work - from his early posters and woodcuts for books to his later portraits, still lifes, and landscapes in oil paint - evince a skill that almost seems to belong more to the magic circle than to art schooling.
But without his keen and fastidious draftsmanship (his "acquaintance" with the "art of leaving out" as James McNeill Whistler may have written about him in an unsigned catalog introduction of 1900), this sort of dare-all legerdemain might only too easily have fallen flat on its face: The bunch of flowers might not have sprung unexpectedly out of the top hat.
In fact, Nicholson brought to his apparent transience of touch and quickness of observation a determined consistency. He was also a questing kind of painter, willing to experiment, decisively not content with formulae.
His reputation as a painter to be taken seriously has suffered from his magicianship (not to mention his eccentric dandyism - his white duck trousers and spotted silk dressing gown). Or it might be more accurate to say that it has survived in spite of these.
Books about him, and exhibitions, have continued to appear periodically. He is by no means forgotten. And slowly he is coming to be recognized for certain extraordinary qualities that lift him above the accusations of being merely or typically English and Edwardian.
The latest book on him, "William Nicholson Painter," is also the most comprehensive to date in some ways. It is not a catalog raisonne. Its comprehensiveness lies in the fact that it illustrates far more of his works than any earlier book or catalog (many things are in color, most of them scrupulously accurate) and that it includes a wealth of documentation, much of which has been unpublished until now.
"William Nicholson Painter" is a compilation and has no single author. Its editor is Andrew Nicholson (a grandson), and he quietly strings together his material with little passages of a mainly explanatory kind. The book could have done with rather more explanation but the aim is clearly to let the artist's writings and work speak for themselves as far as possible, and to establish their context and the atmosphere of the times in which they were produced, by a wide selection of correspondence, commentary, interviews, reminiscences, and photographs.
The subtle balance of the man, the responsibility, conviction, and instinct that were active underneath the surface of ease and wit and sensuous elegance do come across.
This book will unquestionably encourage a more serious appraisal of Nicholson. That it does so without academic art-speak or weighty art-historical eloquence is all to the good. Nicholson himself, who said little about his art or art in general, surely would have preferred this treatment to a volume of solemn theorizing.
His apparent nonchalance makes the occasional surfacing of his opinions almost startling. A running theme in the book is Nicholson's artistic relationship with his increasingly famous son, Ben (who felt the need to disassociate himself from his father's work and acknowledge his debt to it). In one or two letters we encounter poignant hints of what the editor calls "difficult times" between the two artists.
To Ben, William once wrote: "My dear, it doesn't matter a pinch if you think - or the reverse - I am old fashioned. I look on fashion as a garment which keeps on changing and leaves the body much the same in all the ages, hence my distrust of your judgement in following in the paths of they who worship the crippled jug. In 50 years time or before, this must date your work pretty badly I think.
"Try - please try - not to patronize me...."
Ben, as his final letters in the book show, knew his feelings were complicated and even confused about his father's work. He suspected that a son cannot be the best judge in such matters. Fortunately, grandson Andrew has allowed (as Ben would not have done) as much space to William's portraits as to his wind-swept Downs landscapes and the scintillating still lifes - all painted with an awe-inspiring economy, truth of tone, and relish for color.
To Ben, his father's portraits were "extraneous" - "WN's gift as I understand it was not in that direction." If this is so, poor WN wasted many years and most of his often laborious painting-energy. But the truth is that he was a perceptively delving portraitist and could be, at his best in this genre, quite as daring, yet sure, as he was with the boomerang.
Described in his early days as "a fiery disciple of Velasquez and Whistler," Nicholson shows in his work that he was also an admirer of Manet. With these masters he shared an unpretentiousness, a kind of surface innocence that loves risks. They all knew that painting is a kind of dexterous illusionism - but also that to admit and enjoy this to the full is not at all to avoid a disarming sincerity.
* 'William Nicholson Painter' is only available in Britain right now. But it can be ordered through any US bookstore or directly from Giles de la Mare Publishers, 3 Queen Square, London WCIN 3AU. Tel. 011-44-171-465-0045.