William Nicholson. Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings by Patricia Reed.

William Nicholson. Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings by Patricia Reed.
London 2011. ISBN 978 0 300 17054 2

William Nicholson catalogue by Patricia ReedIt is unavoidable that this review will contain some superlatives. Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949) was one of the greatest painters of the early 20th century in England and this book must be one of the greatest achievements of art history of its type of the century. Patricia Reed has laboured over the book for many years and her achievement is huge. The book runs to 672 pages and it is important not to overlook the sheer beauty of its production by Yale. It is monstrously heavy, but that somehow reflects the substance of its ambition.

There are commentators writing on oil painting in 20th century Britain who somehow manage to overlook, or downplay, the significance of William Nicholson. There are various stratagems whereby they achieve this. He was too “traditional”, apparently uninfluenced by the developments in art that swept the Continent during his lifetime and slowly came to influence the output of some of his English contemporaries; he took no risks, developed nothing, did not move forwards the great search for progress in artistic achievements that so typified some other artists. Therefore, we are asked to demote him to a minor category; he is too Edwardian, too slick and glib and superficial: a petit maître.

Nothing could be further from a fair assessment of his achievements. The bedrock of his art was that he was an extremely talented professional artist. The subtlety with which he applied the paint to the canvas and achieved the delicate, complex pictures which seem sometimes to be so easy, cannot be underestimated. Another piece of praise is that the artist, Merlin James, writes an introductory piece analysing Nicholson’s painting techniques by unpicking a small number of the pictures in great detail: he does so with sheer brilliance. His chapter is full of painterly touches which help the reader or viewer of Nicholson’s work to appreciate what he was doing.

He begins by setting the scene for a more detailed analysis of particular pictures:

“The more modest and matter-of-fact Nicholson’s subjects are, the more startling or resonant their character can be, as one starts to appreciate it. The simpler his images appear, the more complex and ambiguous they turn out to be. The properties of his objects, on inspection and reflection, are found to be inflected by and dependent on other objects in, or aspects of, the environment around them. Less and less is intrinsic, more and more is relative, the longer one’s look lingers, the more something essential seems to be approached”.

Then he shows us how an artist’s eye unpicks the work of a fellow painter:

“We see successive densities building to a black, in the ‘overlapping’ layers of the glasses. We see yellow appearing as green-grey when seen through cold blue. We see white receiving a blush of blue where the light shines through the blue glass. Where violet takes a sliver of reflected background, it is raised to a pink, just a little colder than that on which the glasses stand.”

The writer then goes on to compare Nicholson with the great artists he should be compared to in each of the categories of his work: Chardin in his still lifes, Corot in his landscapes; his portraits reflecting the work of Hals and Velazquez. Nicholson was not copying the artists and is not being simply compared to them; in the tradition of formal art which declined in 20th century England, he learnt from and assumed the skills and ambitions of the Old Masters. The modern artists who sought in a similar way to turn their art historical knowledge to their different purposes are identified by the writer as painters so widely different as Modigliani (portraits), Morandi (still lifes) and Derain (landscapes).

However, a review of this book should not allow itself to get sidetracked by focussing solely on the brilliant work of Merlin James, which is, in a sense, incidental to the book. Patricia Reed has done something hugely substantive in her catalogue. Having worked extensively with catalogues of this type, I can vouch for the practical achievements of this one. In concise and easily digested entries for each picture it covers all the information the researcher can expect or want to find in such a book. Known provenance is identified and the provision of a full index gives the scholar every opportunity to see if his object of research is covered. Clearly this is not a book to read from cover to cover; it is a book for an evening’s reflective page-turning or for consulting in the library. The brilliance of the artist’s work is illustrated over and over again. One flicks through a book like this with wonder at the sheer number and variety of great pictures. Some have had meaning for me since the very earliest days when I started to accumulate postcards of works of art which I liked (the forgotten boxes now lie in my attic). I recognise so well “Mrs Stafford of Paradise Row” (No 73) from 1906. The model used by Nicholson also acted as a model to William Orpen. Then there is “The Girl with the Tattered Glove” (No 140) of 1909, which is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. This uses a different model, a lady who subsequently became the artist’s mistress. The character study of her face is exceptionally fine. Another Fitzwilliam picture is ‘The Gate of Honour under Snow” (No 513) from 1924, showing a view from Gonville and Caius College towards the Senate House. This is just one example of Nicholson as a great painter of snow.

There are too many fine pictures and favourites in Nicholson’s work to keep picking them out. Anyone wishing to assess 20th century English artists objectively will recognise Sir William Nicholson as one of the greats. This book fully supports that status and is itself a great book.