Sir William Nicholson (1872-1942), wood engraver, illustrator, writer of children’s books, theatre designer, and lithographer was born at 12 London Road, Newark-on-Trent to William Newzam Nicholson, an engineer at the Trent ironworks and his second wife Anne Elizabeth Prior.
After studying at Magnus Grammar School where he was first introduced to drawing, Nicholson attended Bushey School of Art run by Hubert von Herkomer. Here he met fellow student Mabel Pryde (1871-1918) who would become his wife, and she would introduce Nicholson to her brother, the artist James Pryde (1869-1941). All three moved to Eight Bells, Denham, Buckinghamshire, where Nicholson and Pryde would collaborate on the famous series of lithographic posters they disseminated under the pseudonym J. & W. Beggerstaff.
Nicholson moved to The Grange, Rottingdean in 1909, and from here he painted the surrounding Sussex Downs. His influences were painters such as Manet and Whistler – painters still within the realist tradition; and whilst over the course of his life his paintings became lighter in colour and less constrained in their verisimilitude, he never responded to the impressionist and post-impressionist developments of the period. Nicholson also very much admired Velázquez, and his still-life paintings between the wars – compositions of lusterware, glasses and vases, flowers and fruit – bear clear evidence this influence.
Nicholson and Mabel had four children – Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) the abstract painter; Anthony, who was killed in action during the First World War; Nancy (1899-1978) painter and wife of the poet Robert Graves, and the leading modernist architect and designer Christopher Nicholson (1904-1948). Nicholson was sociable and much liked. After Mabel’s death from influenza he married Edith Stuart Wortley (1890-1958) and they had a daughter, Liza (b.1920).
He always had an affinity for children and wrote several children’s books -‘Clever Bill’ and ‘The Pirate Twins’ (both 1926), and he illustrated Margery Williams’s enchanting book ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ (1922). Nicholson died at his home, Little Triton, Blewbury, Berkshire in 1949.
Public Collections holding work by William Nicholson include:
The National Portrait Gallery, London; Manchester City Galleries, Manchester; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Tate Gallery, London.