Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicholson, William (1781-1844)

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NICHOLSON, WILLIAM, (1781–1844), portrait-painter and etcher, was born at Ovingham-on-Tyne on 25 Dec. 1781. He was the second of the four sons of James Nicholson, schoolmaster, of Ovingham, and Elizabeth Orton his wife. His paternal grandfather, John Nicholson, had been tenant of the farm of Whitelee, in the parish of Elsdon, Northumberland. His father having been appointed master of the grammar school in Newcastle, the family removed to that city, and at an early age William went to Hull, where he made his earliest attempts in art, executing miniatures of several of the officers of a regiment stationed there. He appears to have been mainly, if not entirely, self-educated in art; but his sketch-books show how careful and constant had been his study of the works of the best masters in public and private galleries. He next returned to Newcastle, and began, in 1808, to exhibit in the Royal Academy with ‘A Group of Portraits, &c., Servants of C. J. Brandling, M.P. Gosforth House, Northumberland.’ In 1816 his contributions included a seated, full-length portrait of Thomas Bewick, the wood-engraver, which was engraved by Thomas Ransom; and he contributed to the Royal Academy for the last time in 1822. Meanwhile he had painted many portraits of members of the old families of Northumberland. By 1814 he had removed to Edinburgh, where he practised as a miniaturist and painter in oils, but especially attracted attention by his very delicate and spirited water-colour portraits, which were his finest works, and where, in 1821, he married Maria, daughter of Walter Lamb of Edinburgh. In 1814 he sent to the seventh of the Edinburgh exhibitions of pictures, organised by the Associated Artists, eight works—genre, architectural, animal, landscape and portraits, including the above-mentioned portrait of Bewick. In the following year he was represented by twenty works, including portraits of Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, and Tennant the poet, and his name appears in the catalogue as a member of the Edinburgh Exhibition Society; and in 1816 he exhibited portraits of Daniel Terry the actor, the Earl of Buchan, and a second portrait of Hogg, along with other twenty works. In April 1818 he began to publish, from 36 George Street, a series of ‘Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland, drawn and etched by William Nicholson,’ from his portraits and those by other painters. Two parts only, with text, of three plates each were issued; but further publication in that form was discontinued, though the artist continued to produce in the immediately succeeding years a few other etchings from his portraits, and in 1886 an edition of seven subjects was printed in America by the artist's son, Mr. W. L. Nicholson, of Washington City, who possessed the original plates. Nicholson's etchings include portraits of Sir Walter Scott, Hogg, Lord Jeffrey, George Thomson, Professor Playfair, Professor John Wilson, Sir William Allan, P.R.S.A., James Watt the engineer (in his eighty-second year, 1817); and among them was a reduced copy of Nasmyth's original portrait of Robert Burns, and a very striking reproduction of one of Sir Henry Raeburn's own portraits of himself. In his prospectus the artist states that ‘in the mode of execution, he has endeavoured to follow a middle style, combining, to the utmost of his power, the freedom of the painter's etching (and in this respect, of course, holding up Vandyke and Rembrandt to himself as his models), with the finish of a regular engraving.’ The heads are carefully modelled, and they were considered successful as likenesses. In 1821 Nicholson sent to the first modern exhibition of the Institution (afterwards the Royal Institution) for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, portraits of (Sir) William Allan (afterwards), P.R.S.A., in Tartar costume, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder and his wife, and Sir Adam Ferguson; and in 1825 he exhibited ten works, including portraits of George Thomson, and the Rev. Dr. Jamieson. His name first appears as an associate of the Institution in the catalogue of their exhibition (of ancient pictures) in 1826. It was Nicholson who, early in 1826, ‘handed round for signature a document in which it was proposed to found a Scottish academy,’ and at the first general meeting of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, held on 27 May 1826, he was elected secretary. He and Thomas Hamilton, the architect (in the words of Sir George Harvey, P.R.S.A.), ‘were the real founders of the academy, but for whose indomitable will and wise guidance the vessel would have been upon the rocks before it had well got under way.’ After discharging the duties of the position with great vigour and judgment he resigned on 26 April 1830, finding that the attention which the situation required was incompatible with his professional pursuits. He still, however, continued a valued member of the Academy, and his early (gratuitous) exertions as secretary were at a later day recognised by the presentation of a handsome set of silver plate from his fellow-academicians. He had sent twenty-six works to its first exhibition in 1827, and he contributed liberally to every one of its succeeding exhibitions, many of his later works being ‘genre’ pictures and landscape and coast subjects in oils, till his death by fever, after a few days' illness, in Edinburgh, on 16 Aug. 1844. He left two sons and two daughters.

Among the eminent men whose portraits were painted by Nicholson was Sir Walter Scott, of whom he executed four water-colours. The earliest, dated 1815, etched by the artist in 1817, is in the possession of his son, Mr. W. L. Nicholson, of Washington City; a second, with the position of the head somewhat altered, and with no objects introduced in the background, is in the possession of Mr. Erskine of Kinnedder; a third (without the dog, ‘Maida’) is in the possession of Lord Young, Edinburgh; and the fourth is at Abbotsford, where also are his water-colours of Scott's daughters, Sophia (Mrs. Lockhart) and Anne, of which there are engravings in Lockhart's ‘Life’ by G. B. Shaw. A slight, but particularly delicate, example of his work in water-colours is the head of the second wife of Professor Dugald Stewart, in the possession of the artist's daughter, Mrs. Duck. He is represented in the National Gallery of Scotland by an oil painting of Hugh W. Williams, artist, and a water-colour of George Thomson, the friend of Burns; in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by an oil portrait of Sir Adam Ferguson, and a sepia sketch of Professor John Playfair; and in the collection of the Royal Scottish Academy by oil portraits of Thomas Hamilton, R.S.A., architect, William Etty, R.A., and a portrait of a lady.

[Redgrave's Dictionary; Catalogue of Scott Exhibition, 1871 (Edinb. 1872), and of the exhibitions mentioned above; Harvey's Notes of the Early History of the Royal Scottish Academy; information from the artist's daughter, Mrs. Duck, and his son, Mr. W. L. Nicholson of Washington, U.S.A.]

J. M. G.