press release

William Nicholson's position in art history has often been disputed. He refused official accolades and stood apart from the artistic movements which dominated the early 20th century. But we know how he started out out as an artist; with a wife and son to support he temporarily abandoned fine art to work as a graphic artist during the consumer boom of the 1890s.

Nicholson’s first success as a graphic artist was a poster for a production of Hamlet; after this positive experience he decided to concentrate on printmaking. Many of Nicholson's contemporaries were influenced by Japanese woodblocks and the black-line cuts of 15th century Italian artists. Nicholson, however, was inspired by woodblocks in English ‘chapbooks’ (cheaply produced popular pamphlets) and by the ‘primitive’ character of old woodblocks which he discovered in a Newark bookshop.

Over the winter of 1896-7 Nicholson produced one of his most famous graphic works. An Alphabet begins with ‘A was an Artist’. This print was an ironic self-portrait showing Nicholson as a pavement artist. Other prints ranged from Elizabethan to modern subject matter. ‘G is for Gentleman’ was a traditional subject; ‘U is for Urchin’ was more contemporary. Another departure from tradition was the exclusion of moralising verses. Nicholson’s alphabet is primarily a visual delight.

Fame was secured, in 1897, by Nicholson’s commemorative print celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Nicholson was hailed as a distinguished young artist. In subsequent years he returned to fine art, concentrating on portraiture, still life and landscape.


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William Nicholson - British Painter and Printmaker
Sackler Galleries