A place after a painter's heart

In her painting, 'Cheeky Chicks,' Winifred Nicholson pays tribute to the Scottish isles she loved so well.

The English painter Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) seems to have first visited Sandaig in Ross-shire on the west coast of Scotland in 1949. She returned to this remote location a number of times. She also fell in love with the Hebridean islands as ideal painting places – across the sea from Sandaig is the Isle of Skye and further west is the island of South Uist.

Looking at "Cheeky Chicks" (see picture on next page), painted at the southern end of South Uist with her characteristically quick freshness, it becomes immediately clear what attracted her to the islands: It was the translucency of the light (a slanting light quite different from the strong light she had seen and painted in India and Greece), the white sands, the soft gray atmosphere, the space reaching out over sea to islands and sky beyond, and the abundance of bright wildflowers.

In a letter to her son, Andrew, she told him that South Uist was "the place after my heart." This long letter is undated. It seems likely to have been written in 1950, but probably not in August as has been previously guessed. The evidence is in the flowers. Bunched together in a glass jar – and so obviously just picked – they indicate, according to a local naturalist, sometime in June rather than later summer. Nicholson mentions most of them in her letter – yellow kingcups (or marsh marigolds), deep carmine orchids, pink ragged robins, and yellow flag irises. They are joined in the bunch by the white fluff of cotton grass, which, like the kingcups, would no longer be in flower in August.

A visitor to South Uist this year describes the "blowy" cotton grass as "growing like drifts of snow in the [island's] damp places ... and by the roadside." The living colors and forms of the wildflowers that Nicholson translates with such immediate sensitivity into the touch and flicker of her brush strokes are enlivened by the wispy whiteness of the cotton grass.

This artist's essential lightheartedness encouraged her to let into her painting the "chicks" (she tells her son) that had to be kept out of the cottage she was staying in.

They are hardly yellow Eastertime chicks, but fully grown black hens and a cockerel, with bright red combs. They are so similar to the delightful chickens often featured in the decoration of Scottish Wemyss Ware pottery that it is easy to be persuaded that Nicholson consciously paid tribute to them in this Scottish picture of hers.

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