The British painter William Nicholson (1872–1949) is largely unknown in the United States, although there was a 1926 gallery show. In the spring Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City rectified this oversight with an exhibition of paintings that look remarkably fresh. Nicholson’s style is modern in the manner of a nineteenth-century modernist such as Whistler or Manet, especially the Manet of those deceptively simple still lifes that are increasingly admired today. Nicholson largely ignored the subsequent -isms of the twentieth century, continuing to make still lifes, landscapes and portraits in an off-hand, painterly idiom that remains a pleasure to look at. One of his signature paintings, The Silver Casket (1919), is an apparently straightforward study of a pair of blue gloves, strings of coral and black beads, and the eponymous vessel, a curiously grand, round, pinnacled, shimmering box that catches the light and reflects the other objects in its convex surface. That curved silver plane is like a microcosm of a painting: the red beads form themselves, in an Alice-in-Wonderland distortion, into a phantom key. Nicholson’s taupe-and-gray palette is Whistlerian, and his paint handling loose enough to let the texture of the canvas show through. These vanity table still lifes are something of a Nicholson specialty. In Miss Simpson’s Boots (1919) two pairs—one soft white, the other shiny red—sit side by side on a shelf, accompanied by a gold-edged watch on a scarlet ribbon.
This casual, untraditional subject becomes an arena for buttery brushstrokes and a subtle play of light and shadow. Neither academic nor avant-garde, Nicholson doesn’t seem to have an art historical agenda, but he passionately loves to paint. Tall Pewter Jug (c.1933-1939) presents its monumental, light-attracting and curvaceous principal subject atop a rumbled mass of newspapers; Whistler would have called it a symphony in brown and silver.
There are echoes of Whistler, too, in Nicholson’s portraits, such as the bold Sybil Hart-Davis (1913), with the attractive young woman on a divan framed by patterned drapery. Her backdrop, in this striking composition, is a field of brushy white that any abstractionist would be proud of. Nicholson lived through two world wars, and although his joy in everyday experience is a touchstone of his work, melancholy sometimes emerges. April 1917 (1917) envelops imposing buildings and snow-edged streets in a grey-green light more sorrowful than darkness. His landscapes are often radically simplified. Clifftop Rottingdean, by Moonlight (1910) has a German Romantic feel, with the barely sketched solitary observer hovering on the edge of a luminous, brown-tinged void. But the more distinctly British Cattle and a White Horse at Pasture (1918) places the amiable animals in a sage-green field of brushstrokes. The rolling hills seem to mimic the curve of the Earth under the bright white mass of blue-backed clouds. Nicholson does not generally work on a big scale—The Silver Casket is 13×16 inches, the sun-drenched, vibrantly colored Andalucian Homestead (1935), 12 ¾ x 15 ¾ inches. Yet there is nothing precious about the way he handles paint or orchestrates compositions.
Although this exhibition clearly demonstrates Nicholson’s painterly prowess, he made his initial reputation as a printmaker, working alongside James Pryde—under the pseudonyms J. and W. Beggarstaff—to create some of the strongest poster designs of the 1890s. Nicholson collaborated on books with poets W.H. Davies and Siegfried Sassoon and with his brother-in-law Robert Graves. The Graves-Nicholson magazine of literature and the arts, The Owl, is much admired, as are the illustrations Nicholson created for the first edition of the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit. He led a fascinating life, nurturing an imaginative family while pursuing his own diverse interests. Three of his children made careers in the arts, the painter Ben Nicholson, the printer and fabric designer Nancy Nicholson and the architect Christopher Nicholson. Gallery owner Paul Kasmin is a great-grandson.
An elegant catalogue essay by Sanford Schwartz offers insights into the remarkable career and artistry of William Nicholson. Paul Kasmin Gallery is located at 293 Tenth Avenue, 511 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 563-4474. On the Web at www.paulkasmingallery.com