Friday, January 15, 2010

The Beggarstaff Brothers

Over 20 years ago we viewed a house in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, seduced by the estate agent’s promise that it contained a separate structure in the garden that had been the painting studio of Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949). The house itself was Nicholson’s last home, shared with his companion, the writer Marguerite Steen. Needless to say, the dream painting studio turned out to be a small, dank hut, and we didn’t buy the house. But it sparked my interest in William Nicholson, who at that time had rather sunk from view, eclipsed by his artistic children: the painter Ben Nicholson, the fabric designer Nancy Nicholson (first wife of the poet Robert Graves), and the architect Kit Nicholson.

William Nicholson, Bookplate for the caricaturist Phil May
Woodcut, 1895

Born in Newark, Nottinghamshire, William Nicholson studied at the private art school run by Hubert von Herkomer, and then at the Académie Julian in Paris. He married a fellow-student from Herkomer’s, Mabel Pryde. From 1900 William Nicholson’s primary occupation was painting, but he is better remembered today for his boldly graphic woodcuts, mostly created in the 1890s. Many of these were published in portfolios such as An Almanac of Twelve Sports, London Types, An Alphabet, and Twelve Portraits. Under the joint pseudonym The Beggarstaff Brothers, William Nicholson and his brother-in-law James Pryde also attempted to make a living as poster designers.

 William Nicholson, Bookplate for the publisher William Heinemann
Woodcut, 1897

There was a major retrospective of William Nicholson’s work at the National Gallery in 1942, by which time he had ceased painting following a stroke. More recently, his art was celebrated in the exhibition Sir William Nicholson: Painter and Printmaker at the Royal Academy, 2004-2005.

William Nicholson, Cabriolet
Woodcut, 1898

That William Nicholson himself was something of a dandy can be seen in James Pryde’s evocative portrait of him, with a stiff high collar and yellow kid gloves.

James Pryde, Portrait Study of W. P. Nicholson
Lithograph 1898

William Nicholson’s woodcuts, with their striking use of thick black outlining and their off-centre composition, draw on Japanese models, filtered through artists such as Lautrec and Bonnard. But unlike an artist such as Henri Rivière (see last post), William Nicholson did not painstakingly imitate Japanese methods. Instead he looked back to the work of the Newcastle artist Joseph Crawhall (1821-1896), whose own work was a conscious homage to the naive woodcuts that adorned early C19th century chapbooks, simple publications sold by wandering pedlars. Oddly, Joseph Crawhall was to suffer the same overshadowing by a more famous son, also called Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913), one of the “Glasgow Boys”.

Joseph Crawhall, Babes in the Wood

Joseph Crawhall, George Barnwel

The Crawhall images above are woodcuts (Crawhall calls them "sculptures") taken from the 1976 Scolar Press reprint of Crawhall’s Chap-book Chaplets (1883), in which the hand-coloured woodcuts were reproduced by lithography.

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