William Nicholson

Provenance

With Beaux Arts Gallery, London
Clifford Hall, 1953
F.B.C. Bravington, 1956
With Marlborough Fine Art, London
Mark Birley, 1990
Annabel's Ltd.

Exhibitions

1927, London, Beaux Arts Gallery, Exhibition of Recent Paintings by William Nicholson, April - May 1927, cat. no. 1
1928, Glasgow, Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, April 1928, cat. no. 21
1933, Nottingham, Nottingham Museum & Art Gallery, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, March - April 1933, cat. no. 143
1933, Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery, Platt Hall, Works by William Nicholson, June - July 1933, cat. no. 30
1933, Scarborough, Scarborough Public Library, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, Aug. - Sept. 1933, cat. no. 57
1933, Folkestone, Folkestone Public Art Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings and Lithographs by William Nicholson, Oct. - Nov. 1933, cat. no. 16
1934, Belfast, Belfast Municipal Museum & Art Gallery, Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Prints by William Nicholson, Feb. 1934, cat. no. 24
1934, Lincoln, Usher Art Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings and Lithographs by William Nicholson, July - Aug. 1934, cat. no. 5
1934, Newark, Newark Municipal Museum, Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, Sept. - Oct. 1934, cat. no. 11
1990, London, Browse & Darby, William Nicholson, 1874-1949, March - April 1990, cat. no. 15

Literature

Lillian Browse, William Nicholson, 1956, Rupert Hart-Davis, p. 67, no. 208
Patricia Reed, William Nicholson: Catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings, 2011, Modern Art Press, p. 348, no. 409 (col. illus.)
This painting by William Nicholson provides a unique visual insight into the formation of British commemoration practices after the First World War. It depicts Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph on the morning of the Peace Procession, held on 19 July 1919. The structure depicted here was built from wood and plaster and erected solely for the purpose of the grand event – a fleeting moment before it was rebuilt in Portland stone to become the permanent centre of British remembrance activities. Its design was only approved on 7 July, a mere twelve days before the procession itself. Correspondence in the Imperial War Museum shows that ‘a stand’ was erected for Nicholson’s use, to help him view the procession past the monument. He attended earlier in the day, however, missing the crowds and instead capturing just a few passers-by dressed in mourning clothes from ground level. A pen and ink sketch of the scene appeared in a letter from Nicholson to his friend Ada Pringle (private collection).

The war was not formally concluded until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June. The Peace Procession was as such the first large-scale event of public mourning and commemoration – a full eight months after hostilities had ended. It was only later that 11 November, the day of armistice, was adopted as the principle day on which to commemorate the Great War. Nicholson’s painting offers an important insight into this historic day, catching the solemn mood and perhaps overlaying the scene with his own feelings of loss and grief.

Nicholson was good friends with Lutyens, the Cenotaph’s architect. It was around this time that Nicholson took the portrait of Lutyens’ daughter, Ursula (1916–8, Private Collection), a painting that was later reproduced on the cover of Country Life. At the time of the Peace Procession, neither of them anticipated the great significance that the Cenotaph would later hold. As the historian Allan Greenberg has written, ‘[t]he temporary Cenotaph was such a minor detail in the planning of the Peace Day Celebration... that no one involved could have possibly imagined it's becoming the official memorial.’ The pile of flowers depicted at the base of the monument in Nicholson’s painting grew rapidly throughout the day of the procession, as members of the public came to lay wreaths out of respect for the war dead. Witnessing the scene early in the day, Nicholson’s flowers cover the steps alone, before they became a flood. The artist’s execution is meticulous, the vivid floral hues of red, white, pink and green applied with characteristic dexterity.

The painting was made in preparation for a larger work that would have included a procession of nurses from the Royal Army Medical Corps, passing before the Cenotaph. The work was commissioned from the Women’s Section of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), who had only £180 to spend on the painting. The commission was overseen by Florence, Lady Norman – a noted campaigner for women’s suffrage who ran a voluntary hospital in France early on during the First World War. Writing on behalf of the IWM’s Women’s Work Committee on 31 July 1919, Lady Norman thanked Nicholson for undertaking the commission and noted his ‘patriotic motives’ for doing so. (She conceded that £180 was ‘far below the real value of your picture’.)

When an enquiry was made about Nicholson’s progress, he replied that he had been away in Wales and the Riviera since the summer. In an undated letter, probably written in November 1919, Nicholson was sorry ‘not to have finished the “Nurse” picture before I came away but family affairs made it impossible.’ It is unclear what ‘family affairs’ he was referring to but Nicholson, like most people, had suffered a personal loss during the war. He was deeply affected by the death of his favoured son, Tony, who had died of his wounds on 5 October 1918. A subject so closely connected to the suffering of war was likely to have been upsetting to Nicholson at that time. Indeed, his son’s death prompted a lengthy period of grieving during which he confined himself from society by remaining in Wales. This depiction of the Cenotaph was the first stage of preparation in the IWM commission, and his reasons for abandoning the project are perhaps related to the grief he felt for Tony.

Though the commission was never completed, Nicholson regarded Cenotaph (Morning of the Peace Procession) as a substantive work in its own right. It was the leading exhibit in his solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1927, and it was exhibited again six years later at his first major retrospective exhibition which started in Nottingham. It is clear from the painting itself that this is more than merely a study. Each aspect of the composition has been settled, the Cenotaph viewed from a three-quarter angle in front of the soot-encrusted façade of the Foreign Office. The building is hung with flags, adding notes of decorative colour to the scene. Nicholson’s lightness of touch, the fluency with which he transforms paint-marks into readable appearances, is strongly in evidence. The Union Flag hanging from the Cenotaph, for instance, is composed from a few exact applications of the brush which sit together with pleasing informality. The signature at bottom right is a final confirmation of the work’s completeness. With Nicholson’s technical acuity, this painting is an outstanding work that summarises the poverty of war as well as commemorating the moment that a distinctively British style of remembrance came into being.