Why was Churchill’s favorite painter forgotten?
William Nicholson was one of London’s most fashionable portrait painters when he bought a parsonage on the Sussex coast in 1909. It was ‘a crazy thing for a man to do’, the 37-year-old artist admitted years, leaving him £200. in debt and “in the curiously rotten position of having more houses than food”. But for a man who spent his working week in gas-lit clubs and heavily furnished saloons, The Grange at Rottingdean, with its salty wind and chalk cliffs slowly tumbling into the sea, proved irresistible.
Nicholson and his wife Mabel, also an artist, first acquired the house as a “summer nest”, but neither they nor their children – Ben, 15, Antony, 13, Nancy, 10 and Kit, five years – couldn’t bear to be away from it for very long. They were still there when the war broke out, bringing terrible tragedy to the family; life as Nicholson knew and loved it was never the same.
You may know Nicholson. Certainly his still lifes, all in shiny, plump-bellied silver bowls and burnished lustreware, have become cult in recent years, as has his illustrated alphabet of woodcuts, beginning with his dashing self-portrait: “A was an artist “. His landscapes, in which shadows skim and run over ridges and plains, are also on the rise. But for an artist so well known during his lifetime (he was Winston Churchill’s favorite painting teacher and knighted in 1936), he is curiously underrated today.
“He was kind of replaced by his son Ben,” explains Nicholson’s grandson, Desmond Banks, “because Ben’s geometric abstract paintings [in the 1930s] realized the great dream of British modernism. Nicholson Sr was rather “determined elusive”, oblivious to the “isms” of early 20th century art, and refusing election to the Royal Academy. That Nicholson framed an envelope there addressed to him, on which the RA guard had written “unknown at this address,” tells you a lot about his sense of humor.
An exhibit on Nicholson opens tomorrow at La Grange. Organized by the Rottingdean Heritage Society to celebrate 150 years since Nicholson’s birth, it is supported by his descendants, who have loaned paintings, prints, family letters and photographs as well as rarely seen personal items , such as Nicholson’s paint smock, hat, and silk dress. dress. Surveying his whole life, he nevertheless makes the Rottingdean years “a showpiece”, curator David Bomford tells me, “which will give a different impression of him.” You will see how crucial Rottingdean was to him. He was painting so much for his own pleasure there.