William Nicholson 1872-1949


J.B Gold

At Sotheby’s, London, 17 March 1965, lot 13

George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood

At Christie's, London, 11 July 2013, lot 211

Private Collection


London, Grafton Galleries, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, 3rd Exhibition of Fair Women, May – July 1910, cat. no. 16
Bradford, City Art Gallery, The eighteenth Spring Exhibition of works contributed by the artists, March – May 1911, cat. no. 44

Toronto, Department of Fine Arts, Canadian National Exhibition, 23 Aug. – 8 Sept. 1913, cat. no. 40


Art News, 2 June 1910.
The World, 4 June 1910.
Bazaar, 10 June 1910.
Westminster Gazette, 20 June 1910.
Lillian Browse, William Nicholson, 1956, Rupert Hart-Davies, p. 129, cat. no. 641
Patricia Reed, William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, 2011, Modern Art Press, p. 177, cat. no. 184 (col. illus.)

Sir William Nicholson was born in 1872 in Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, the youngest of the three children. He attended grammar school in Newark and began studying in 1888 at Herkomer's Art School, just north of London, before moving in 1891 to Paris where he attended the Académie Julian. In 1893 he married Mabel Pryde, sister of the artist James Pryde, and they had four children - the eldest was to become the celebrated St. Ives artist Ben Nicholson. In 1921 Nicholson judged the Carnegie International and in 1924 exhibited 22 works at the Venice Biennale. He turned down consideration for membership of the Royal Academy in 1926 but became a trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1934 for five years. In 1933 he had a significant and wide spanning touring retrospective organised by the Castle Museum in Nottingham alongside an exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London. His impressive career culminated in a knighthood in 1936, a retrospective at the National Gallery, London in 1942 and a travelling exhibition mounted by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1947. He died in 1949 in Blewsbury, Berkshire.

In 'The Grey Shawl', the model is wearing a fine grey woollen shawl, either knitted or crocheted and of great delicacy. Such shawls were made in Ireland and the northern isles of Scotland and were much sought after at this date (1910). With her dark hair hanging loose and her downcast eyes Nicholson appear to imply this young girl must have a narrative, prompting the viewer to seek some clue in the landscape sketched out below. However, the artist shows greater interest in depicting the texture of the delicate shawl beneath which the girl's glossy dark hair and the material of her dress are partially visible. His palette is limited, with greys and blues predominating.

The Grey Shawl received considerable attention when it was first exhibited at the International Society Exhibition of Fair Women in May 1910, where it was shown together with The Blue Shawl. The latter depicts a young woman in profile, seen from the back, and wearing a rich blue woollen shawl partially draped over her bare shoulders. These works were often discussed together, as in the Westminster Gazette (20 June 1910) where one reporter declared, '... each is a demonstration of a fine artistic personality, highly skilled, and absolutely unfettered by convention or alien influence.' The unidentified reviewer in The World (4 June 1910) wrote, 'Mr William Nicholson's two half-length's - 'The Grey Shawl' (16) and 'The Blue Shawl' (9) - are admirably placed on their canvas. In both we find the same intense interest in character which has marked Mr Nicholson's work from the beginning, that shrewd and humorous observation expressed in terms of deliberate weight and subtle harmony which makes Mr Nicholson's work not only delightful to the eye but fascinating to the intelligence.'

These reviews indicate what set Nicholson apart at the beginning of the twentieth century: he was able to entertain his Edwardian audience with beautifully painted portraits and genre scenes without compromising psychological nuance and a curious detachment from narrative. These characteristics were the tools he used to push the art of his period forward and establish himself as a master of a new English style highly influential to his contemporaries and antecedents, most notably, Augustus John, William Orpen and Laura Knight.