Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicholson, Francis (1753-1844)

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NICHOLSON, FRANCIS (1753–1844), painter in water-colours, born on 14 Nov. 1753 at Pickering in Yorkshire, was son of Francis Nicholson, a weaver. After receiving a good education in his native town, the boy, who was first destined by his father to become a tailor, was placed with an artist at Scarborough for instruction. After a three years' residence there he returned to Pickering, where for two years he occupied himself in painting portraits and pictures of horses, dogs, and game for local patrons. Seven months' study followed in London, under a German artist named Metz, who was an efficient figure-painter. Returning to Yorkshire, he increased his practice by taking views about the houses and estates of the gentry. After nine more months of study in London he again returned to Pickering, and probably about this time began his practice in water-colour.

In 1783 he removed to Whitby, and was at first chiefly employed in painting portraits. But the beauty of the Mulgrave Woods induced him to devote himself to landscape, and during the next nine years he gradually made a reputation by selling his drawings in Scarborough during the season, as well as in London. He practised a method of reproducing his views by etching on a soft ground and taking impressions with black lead. In 1789 he first sent drawings to the London exhibitions.

About 1792 he left Whitby for Knaresborough, where he resided three years, and found many patrons in Harrogate. With Sir Henry Tuite he spent some time each year, sketching in his company. Another patron, Lord Bute, not only bought many drawings, but commissioned him to make a set of sketches of the island of Bute. Accordingly, in 1794 he made an extensive tour through Bute and the districts round. On his return to Yorkshire he removed, in 1798, to Ripon. Sir Henry Tuite induced him in 1800 to settle near him at Weybridge, and shortly afterwards he purchased No. 10 Titchfield Street, London, where for many years he carried on a very large practice as an artist and a teacher of drawing.

Nicholson was one of the ten artists who on 30 Nov. 1804 joined together to form the Society of Painters in Water-colours. Of this society he was a member, and he was a very large contributor to its exhibitions till its dissolution in 1812. The Society of Painters in Oil and Water-colours was immediately started on its collapse, and of the new society Nicholson was elected president; but in 1813 he resigned his office and severed his connection with the society. He was specially permitted to exhibit as a member in the following year, but after that date his name does not again appear in their catalogues. He was also a contributor to an exhibition of ‘paintings in water-colours,’ being represented in 1814 by twenty-one works, and in its final exhibition of 1815 by three works. Between 1789 and 1833 he exhibited with the Society of Artists six works, with the Royal Academy eleven, and at Suffolk Street one.

Nicholson published in 1820 ‘The Practice of Drawing and Painting Landscapes from Nature in Water-colours,’ London. The book passed quickly through several enlarged editions. Profiting by the newly invented art of lithography, he executed several hundred drawings on stone, which he used as drawing copies. Of his lithographs may be mentioned eighty-one sketches of British scenery, obl. fol., 1821, and six views of Scarborough, imp. fol., 1822. Between 1 Aug. 1792 and 2 Nov. 1801 he contributed fourteen drawings to Walker's ‘Copper Plate Magazine.’ Engravings after his works also appeared in the ‘Beauties of England and Wales,’ ‘Havel's Aquatints of Noblemen's and Gentlemen's Seats,’ ‘The Northern Cambrian Mountains,’ fol., 1820, and ‘Facsimiles of Water-colour Drawings,’ published by Bowyer in 1825.

Nicholson was not only an efficient and industrious artist, but interested himself in many other subjects. He had a good knowledge of optics, mechanics, and music. His attainments as a chemist enabled him to make successful experiments in the use of colours which did much to advance water-colour art. He was skilled in organ-building, and during his last years wrote his autobiography. He died at his house, 52 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, 6 March, 1844, aged 90.

Nicholson well deserves the name generally given to him as the ‘Father of Water-colour Painting.’ He advanced that art from mere paper-staining with light tints to the production of a depth of tone and variety of shade and colour that the earlier practitioners of the art never dreamt of. With harmony and beauty of colouring he combined an accurate knowledge of drawing, which made his work popular. In 1837 he painted a portrait of himself, then in his eighty-fifth year, thirty inches by twenty-five inches, which he presented to his brother at Pickering. This is (1894) in the possession of a collateral descendant, Mr. Geo. Wrangham Hardy, who published a short account of Francis Nicholson in the ‘Yorkshire County Magazine,’ April 1891. Mention is also made there of a portrait taken from a lithograph published about 1815.

A daughter, Marianna, in 1830 married Thomas Crofton Croker [q. v.], and apparently exhibited two Scotch landscapes at Spring Gardens in 1815.

A son, Alfred Nicholson (1788–1833), after serving in the royal navy, devoted himself to art. From 1813 to 1816 he was in Ireland, but about 1818 he settled in London, where he practised as an artist and teacher of drawing. In 1821 he made a sketching tour through North Wales and a part of Ireland, and in the following summer visited Guernsey, Jersey, and Yorkshire. His works, which are numerous but generally small in size, are accurately drawn and highly finished, and in style much resemble those of his father.

‘Six Views of Picturesque Scenery in Goathland,’ 1821, and ‘Six Views of Picturesque Scenery in Yorkshire,’ 1822, published at Malton, were the work of George Nicholson (1787–1878), probably Francis's nephew and pupil, who died at Filey, 7 June 1878, in his ninety-first year, and was buried at Old Malton. He was an indefatigable artist, but his pictures never attained any great excellence.

[Roget's History of the Old Water-colour Society, vol. i.; Yorkshire County Mag. 1891; Graves's Dict. of Artists; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists of the Engl. School; Crofton Croker's Walk from London to Fulham.]

A. N.