[From John Millar Nicholson, 1931]
JOHN MILLAR NICHOLSON was born in the town of Douglas, Isle of Man, on the 29th January, 1840. The house in which his parents lived was in Church Street. Its front elevation towered three stories high. Possibly it was a residential mansion built in the reign of George II for some Douglas merchant who had fattened himself on the proceeds of the smuggling trade. Some features of the mansion's past glory remained. A pillared portico of Corinthian pretentiousness adorned the front entrance, and the dignity of the domestic architecture was enhanced by a flight of red sandstone steps.
Nicholson received his education at the Douglas Diocesan Grammar School. The Principal of the School was Pearson, who soon discovered the lad's talents and permitted him to specialise in lettering. This early training in pen work was of great service to the artist in his later life. Nicholson's passion for the sea was inherited from his grandfather, who was a mariner and owner of three brigs of Whitehaven. The lad's first voyage was a memorable event. A Norwegian canoe named the " Hatchet-bows," belonging to Billie McShinney, suggested the adventure. With a crew of young hopefuls Nicholson climbed into the craft, lifted the anchor and rowed for the open sea. The wind freshened and the canoe drifted towards the south-east of Douglas Head. Word was sent to McShinney that his boat was adrift. With sundry curses he hurried to the rescue in Billy Brown's yacht. Evening had set in before the canoe was overhauled and towed back to shore. McShinney anchored the " Hatchet-bows" where the water was half a fathom deep and seized Johnnie Nicholson by the collar of his coat and the seat of his breeches. " You young divil ! I'll teach you a lesson," said McShinney, and he flung him overboard. The whole of the crew shared the same fate.
The lad had a proud and independent spirit, a love for the beautiful in form and colour, a talent for music and a determination to master difficulties. Nicholson confessed that he inherited these qualities from his mother. She was a woman with artistic gifts and strength of character. Her maiden name was Christian Bell. When the boy was four years of age his mother died. Fortunately a stepmother came into the home, and her sweet disposition and wise management of the household won the love and respect of the children.
As the quaintness, the old customs and the social life of the people of the town had an educational influence on the artist Nicholson, it is befitting to introduce the reader to the Manx world as it appeared to our forefathers in Douglas in the early part of the 19th Century.
In the sheltered corner of a semi-circular bay, beautified by green hills that dipped their spurs into a blue sea, lay the quiet town. It was a haven of peace and pleasant dreams untouched by the larger world beyond. The only event of interest was the arrival and the departure of the steamer " Queen of the Isle." The Red Pier, which is now a store yard for empty fish boxes and beer barrels, was in Nicholson's youthful days the promenade and the chief attraction of the town. It was there that folk met to gossip with their friends and interchange the news that dribbled in from the outside world. On summer evenings the pier was enlivened with selections played by a German band, and when the light of day was departing westward, happy youths and maidens danced to the music of George Mellinger's accordion. On one of those evenings as the dance went round, John Nicholson accidentally trod upon the foot of a young lady. The embarrassed youth apologised, but the maiden's reply was sweeter than the music of the accordion, and there followed the old love story of the maiden's name being changed to Mrs. John Nicholson.
Stretching from the Red Pier were narrow, sinuous streets crowded with dwelling houses and warehouses. Numerous taverns were in the neighbourhood, and they plied a busy and lucrative trade in Jamaica rum and Manx jough. The market was the Island's commercial centre, and the price of provisions did not distress the parents who were rich in children but poor in money. Manx hens had not joined a Union to limit their output, and their eggs were selling at thirty and forty for a shilling. The price for beef, mutton and pork was fivepence a pound. Cows and pigs resided in the town as household pets. The cows marched through the entrance hall of the house and were accommodated with lodgings in the back-yard. There were distinct grades of society among the townsfolk, ranging from the quality and the retired military officer down to the abject poor. Such was the school in which Nicholson gained his honorary degrees of self-reliance and grit, that give stability of character and are indispensable for high achievement.
Of the year or the day when the youth was enthused with the ambition to be an artist there is no record, but when a child he was known frequently to leave his playmates and wander to the shore to watch the tide. Nature, a kindly dame, must have taken him gently by the hand and whispered to him, " Come with me and I will shew you the beauty that around you lies, and you shall be one of my interpreters."
Passing to the days of his youth, he had the good fortune to enjoy the friendship of an invalid lady named Wilks, who lived in Marina Terrace. From her couch, where she lay helpless and seldom free from pain, she watched the ever-changing panorama of cloud and sea pictures on Douglas Bay. Nicholson, when re-viewing his career, confessed that Miss Wilks was the happiest and most contented person he had ever known.
She discovered that her young friend had a talent for drawing, and gave him his first commission to copy one of her treasured paintings. It was a picture of Christ. The sacredness of the subject and his affectionate regard for his friend called for his best artistic skill. With commendable pride and enthusiasm he set to work, and when the picture was completed it was difficult to decide which was the original painting.
The gentleness and kindness of Miss Wilks made an indelible impression on Nicholson, and he was ever grateful to her for the friendship and counsel that had encouraged him to excel in whatever work he undertook.
Thou, O God, dost sell all good things at the price of labour.-Leonardo da Vinci.
FROM 1864 onwards into the seventies we may say were Nicholson's strenuous years, when he sought to achieve excellency in draughtsmanship. During those years he worked unceasingly, copying numberless pictures, photographs, engravings and decorative designs. He practised in many mediums connected with Art, and we must admit that his success was in no small measure due to his robust health and physical powers.
The painters who determined his style of painting at this period were Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) and Samuel Prout (1783 1852). Stanfield had a great reputation as a marine painter, and Ruskin regarded him as the leader of the English Realists. There is in the Douglas Museum a pen and ink drawing by Nicholson from Stanfield's picture, " Murano." It is a wonderful piece of work, drawn from memory and dated 1872. There is also a watercolour which has been copied from a painting by Samuel Prout.
Prout found his vocation in portraying in watercolours old streets and quaint gabled houses. He employed a broad and effective treatment of light and shade, relieved with sparkling touches of colour. Nicholson often enlivens the general tone of his pictures with a splash of bright colour. One of the young artist's teachers was " The Sketcher's Manual," by Frank Howard. The book professed to teach the whole art of picture making reduced to the simplest principles, by which amateurs might instruct themselves without the aid of a master. The principles advocated in the book were the pictorial effects produced by a quality of lights and shadows with breadth of treatment. It was the principle of three lights, with illustrations from the works of Bonington, Claude, Rembrandt and Turner.
Nicholson's favourite subjects were the sea and shipping. Throughout one year he was on Douglas shore before the break of day to study the cloud effects of the dawn and the changing lights upon the sea and headlands. The silence, the brooding loneli-ness and the white mist that enveloped the town had such an effect upon his emotional nature that he had to find relief in tears. Douglas shore was his atelier where he watched the crystalline tints that flashed on the restless wave and the summer glow shimmering on the incoming tide with the ripple that ran like a silver cord over the brown sand. Looking seaward he would see the stately ship with canvas spread, forging her way through an azure sea. Nicholson always said a ship was a bird on the wing and a piece of man's noblest work.
With such intense application to Art, he became so well-skilled that he could finish his out-door pencil drawings in thirty minutes. These sketches are filled with minute details, and they are miniature works of Art. John Ruskin purchased a number of them at five pounds each, and distributed them to Art Galleries to be kept in their permanent collections. Ruskin wrote to Nicholson commending him for the excellency of his work.
In the year 1877, The Grosvenor Gallery was opened to give special advantages to artists of established reputation and to others who had been little known to the public. Nicholson generally sent his pictures to The Grosvenor, where they were hung on the line and often purchased on the day the Exhibition was opened. Occasionally he exhibited in the Liverpool and Manchester Exhibitions. Once he was offered one guinea per square superficial inch for as many paintings as he could supply to order. Nicholson bluntly refused the offer.
His watercolour, " A Misty Morning," which was painted in 1874, was exhibited in the Royal Academy, and when the Exhibition closed the picture was exhibited in Vienna. The late Mr. James Cowle, the architect, who had a large collection of the artist's works, refused an offer of one hundred pounds for this small gem of art.
From a critical study of Nicholson's work, we find in his pictures a charm and suggestiveness that create sensations of pleasure in the minds of those who can appreciate good Art. It has been said that the soul of Nature is divined by the poet, that the artist creates around himself an Olympus. No doubt the pleasure an artist derives from his own work far exceeds the pleasure of an outsider who views the picture. Nicholson has the rare and coveted quality called genius. His pictures are colour poems of Nature's joy and mystery expressed through an artistic imagination.
A critic reviewing Nicholson's work, hesitatingly allowed that he was a great artist. He said that Nicholson fol lowed the dictates of his own genius, and through his desire to paint Nature as she really was, when pretty pictures telling a story were in vogue, he failed to obtain popularity in his own time. As to the sale of his pictures, that was a secondary matter, and Nicholson would not alter a line to suit the fancies of a possible buyer.
Pre-Raphaelism has but one principle, that of absolute uncompromising truth in all that it does.-Ruskin.
IT was about this period that the new vision respecting Art which came to Rossetti, Hunt and Millais, influenced Nicholson. He became a realist with the fixed idea of representing every object and detail in a picture with conscientious truth-fulness. An example of this realism may be seen in a small drawing in the Manx Museum. The subject is the Tongue in Douglas harbour. The chief object in the sketch is a large timber brig. Every rope and spar is drawn in fine pen work, the accessories around the ship are grouped with great skill, and the balance of the picture is perfected by the engineering shed. The whole is carried out in line work, save one touch of shading in the open doorway of the shed. As for minute detail, one may count the links of the chain that lies by the mooring post. Who but Nicholson could have drawn such a true picture of a Manx scene
There is in the same room a picture entitled, "Underneath the Chasms." The locality is one of the most weird and lonely haunts in Manxland. The picture is a study in line and colour of precipitous crags and wraick-coated boulders. Infinite pains have been taken to show the thin layers in the rock-strata, and the fronds of the sea-weed at the base of the cliffs. Many days the artist must have spent striving with brush and pencil to produce a truthful repre-sentation of the scene. On one of those days while he was engaged on the work, Nicholson was startled by a loud piercing cry. It was a wail of distress that spent itself in echoes from cavern to cavern. The artist looked up from his canvas and saw a man standing on the top of the cliff; his hands were stretched toward heaven, and he was crying with all his strength: " Lord! Lord have mercy on my soul!"
From the grey skies and solitude of the Chasms we turn to the artist's chief source of inspiration. Douglas Harbour was a world of delight to him. There, enfolded in a blue luminous atmosphere, were masses of broken colours, reflected lights and deep shadows. In bright sunlight the old-fashioned Market-place and St. Matthew's Church, with its quaint belfry, had an oriental appearance and was one of the most picturesque corners in the Island.
No less interesting was the movement of sailor life on the quay, and the unloading of vessels. On market days the mass of men and women mingled with ramshackle stalls, farmers' carts, coaches, fish and vegetables, added variety to the scene. In the Spring of each year many weeks were spent by the artist sketching and painting groups of vessels and buildings near the harbour. A favourite station point was Blore's corner. Nicholson would often be seen seated on a mooring post busy with his pencil and undisturbed by the onlookers who clustered behind him to watch the progress of the drawing. On one occasion he was drawing part of an old ketch that lay alongside the South Quay. The old skipper, who was lounging listlessly on the deck of his ship, had his curiosity aroused and came ashore. He stood watching Nicholson at work. When the sketch was nearly finished the old skipper said: " O'ill stan' yer half a quid for it." " Cannot sell," said Nicholson; " it is only a study and of little use to you. May I ask why you are so anxious to have the drawing?" " Well, Guv'nor," said the skipper, " Oi'll give you a quid for it. You see, I want that drawin' of the old ship, for my father and my mother was drowned in her."
There is no record extant of the number of Nicholson's paintings and drawings. He did not keep a diary nor a list of his works. When he was painting in his studio the door was closed against intruders, and the secrets of his craft and methods of working were safely guarded. He was naturally reserved, and in later years averse to mixing with the crowd or appearing at social functions. He preferred the seclusion of his studio, and as recreation a quiet stroll every evening along the sea front in company with his brother Charles. As he "had a large stock of silence at hand" he rarely spoke about his pictures. His independence and occasional brusqueness of speech were combined with an artistic temperament that would not suffer fools gladly. This did not facilitate the sale of his paintings, nor engender popularity or bring troops of friends. Notwithstanding these characteristics, there were few men with a keener relish for the humorous and for the companionship of a kindred spirit. Relative to many things Nicholson was an incorrigible conservative and would agree with Amiel's dictum that " under the rule of Democracy the serener and calmer forms of Art become more and more difficult. The turbulent herd no longer knows the gods."
The Manx Museum gallery of Nicholson's paintings and drawings does not represent the artist at the zenith of his power; certainly not as a painter in water-colour. His best works, which were purchased at the London and Manchester exhibitions, cannot be traced, but there are many pictures belonging to the early period of his career in private houses in the Island.
There are two watercolours in Bridge House, Castletown. One is a view of the town as seen from the road leading to Scarlett. We have St. Mary's Church with the irregular buildings of the Castletonians. Clustering around the Church is a mass of broken browns and greys. Then there is the pier and a stretch of shore, and in the distance Langness and King William's College. A companion picture represents the north shore of Douglas Bay with a wrecked schooner in the foreground. The beauty of these pictures consists in their quiet colours, tone values and atmosphere.
A fortunate owner of one of the artist's largest watercolours is Mr. Lewthwaite, stationer, of Douglas. The painting is an extensive view of Douglas Bay. A fresh breeze is blowing. The sea is a deep blue and is flecked with white-crested wavelets. Grey clouds with a vapourish scud are hurrying across an azure sky. A fishing yawl and a small boat with the men weighing anchor and hoisting the sail, give life and vigour to the scene. Other boats in the distance with their decks drenched with spray are ploughing a white furrow through the blue waters. This picture is one of the best examples of the artist's realistic work. Another example of Nicholson's early work is the watercolour, 43 inches by 21 inches, in the Manx Museum. It is a correct representation of Castle Rushen with the old bridge across the harbour. Its richness lies in the warm yellows and browns and in the purity and transparency of the colours. There is noticeable in parts of the picture a freedom of technique that breaks away from the careful details and the exactness of the lines of the Castle. The whole picture suggests the harmony and repose of a scene that is often repeated when the sun is westering behind the ancient town.
Great power over colour is always a sign of large general art-intellect.-Ruskin.
AFTER Nicholson had visited Italy and had seen the works of Titian and the other great masters, he changed his style of painting. He was confident that upon a certain day a new vision had burst upon his sight; hitherto he had been inclined to pre-Raphaelite realism, copying the threads in Dame Nature's garment, and with micro-scopic exactness drawing the strands of a halyard line. Now he had entered what lie felt was the Renaissance of ART. He had awakened to the revolution that was inspired by Constable when his work was exhibited in Paris in 1804.
Nicholson, with his new vision, felt that the spirit and character of a scene were more important than the parts that composed it. Details were suppressed, but definite values were given to colour, light,shade, composition and atmosphere. The aim of the artist was to produce a general effect of the harmony of Nature with its mystery and suggestiveness. Colour appealed to Nicholson more than form. In colour he was a great master. He lived ideally with Turner, and as the years increased he painted in the highest and most brilliant scale of colour. Had there been a whiter pigment than white, Nicholson would have used it.
Other painters who influenced his art were Titian and James McNeil Whistler. There is a group of watercolours in the Museum Collection of special interest. They were painted for the artist's own delight as memory pictures of visions of Nature which flashed upon his sight and inspired his genius to record. Like Lamb's " Dream Children," they are beautiful creations of local scenes idealised, and Nicholson could not be persuaded to part with one of what he called his " children."
These memory pictures were exhibited in 1908. The Master of the School of Art, in criticising Nicholson's work, said, " They are recollections of impressions mentally painted in a few minutes, which is the fundamental way of getting material for the making of a picture." As impressions of our grey skies, mist-clad coast and Manx atmosphere, they cannot be surpassed.
It is for the critic to judge whether Nicholson by his impressional painting gave a more truthful and a more forceful interpretation of Nature than when by exquisite care he portrayed that gracefulness of line and mystery of colour effects which satisfied the eye, the intellect and the affections. If Art is pictorial expression through a human temperament and the artist's vision, it is folly to dogmatise on Art, and who is so audacious as to determine the correct standard for the artist?
Hamerton in his book, " The Intellectual Life," says: "The most beautiful compositions are produced by the selective office of the memory which retains some features and even greatly exaggerates them, whilst it diminishes others and often altogether omits them." This is apparent in Nichol-son's later work. A few illustrative notes on some of the impressionist pictures will make this clear.
Venice had a charm and fascination for Nicholson. Attached to a beautiful painting of the Grand Canal at Venice, which was forwarded as a gift to the writer in December, 1909, were these lines
The sea is in the broad the narrow streets,
Ebbing and flowing; and the salt seaweed
Clings to the marble of her palaces.
No track of men, no footsteps to and fro
Lead to her gates. The path lies o'er the sea
Invisible : and from the land we went
As to a floating city - steering in
And gliding up her streets as in a dream.
One of the large pictures in the Nicholson Collection is entitled, " S. Maria della Salute Venezia." The scene is Venice on Faster morning. The contadine are flocking to Early Mass. In the foreground is the Campanile lifting its square form 325) feet above the level of the Piazza. Beyond is the Cathedral which for richness of material and decoration is the wonder of the world. It is a holy shrine of coloured marbles and mosaics bathed in the warm Italian atmosphere. The mystery of the building gleams through the picture, and there is an ethereal beauty in the pure colours and in the Venetian magnificence; the religious and mystical qualities have been unconsciously imparted to the picture by the artist.
Another Venetian picture is an English vessel lying at anchor in the Canal. When the picture was on the easel in the studio, an officer of the P. & O. Company called to pay a friendly visit to Nicholson. " Halloa !" said the officer, "that is the old ` Mongolia.' " " Yes," said Nicholson; " but you recognise her by the House flag." " No," said the visitor, " it is the body and bones of the old ship, and I notice what you are not aware of: the ship is homeward bound from the East and the crew have been allowed ashore before she sails." The painting represents a vessel battered and scarred by the wear and traffic in distant ports, and the artist has imparted to the old " Mongolia" an idea of majestic strength for her to battle with stormy seas.
From Venice we pass to Douglas fore-shore. The charm of this picture lies in its colour values and its composition. Details are carefully suppressed, and in parts of the painting there is an intentional exaggeration to produce breadth and repose. The boats are in the strongest view point in the picture. The dark sail in the foreground is set against the greys on the headland. On the landward side of the boats there is a patch of deep blue. " Whoever saw blue on yellow sand?" says the inartistic observer. But what an artist sees in Nature he must be bold enough to express, and such criticism does not belittle the artist who painted this " Summer Morning and what lie saw on Douglas Shore." Beyond the vessels is the flowing tide lapping the fringe of the rocks that are yellow with limpets. It is one of those halcyon mornings which the poet T. E. Brown visualised when he wrote:-
The air of heaven is calm,
No ripple curls upon the glassy sea. The secret spell of the picture is in its expression of Nature's quietude and in its artful hint of her mystery.
One of his finest pictures is a scene on the Mersey which was painted in 1895. The flash of sunlight on the river and the White Star Liner surrounded with lighters and tugs is a true picture of Liverpool's water way. In the picture the artist has given a touch in colour that represents his native Isle. The red funnels of the Manx steamer are seen at the Landing Stage and in the distance there is a hint of her companion ship at anchor in the Sloyne. The technique in this picture is splendid, and several connoisseurs say it is the best work in the Museum Collection.
Another large picture is "The Coming Storm." The horizon is loaded with the furies of a gale driving from the north-east and a heavy wave is rolling upon the shore. The picture is severe in restraint and full of power. When the Commodore of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, Captain McQueen, was in the artist's studio, the picture arrested his attention. After studying the painting, he looked at Nicholson and said, " Ther's muckle dirrt ahint that."
Another masterly painting, strong in broken colours and free handling, is " Baldwin Mill." The masses are carefully balanced, and the dominant note is given by the mill and the trees. Brilliant sunshine lights up the valley, and beyond the bridge the gorse is in full flower.
Nicholson rarely expressed an opinion on his paintings, but on one occasion, during a conversation in his studio, he confessed that the picture upon which he set greatest store was " A Day Scene, Venice." This is hung on the East wall of the Nicholson Gallery, and it was painted in 1898.
In a picture of old craft in Douglas Harbour, we are led on to the edge of what was known forty years ago as " Johnny Hogg's Bay." It was a region at the top of Douglas Harbour, where the mud lay a fathom deep, where all the derelicts and old vessels that were past service found a quiet resting place to rot their hulks until the marine dealer's visitation for their dissolution. In the picture there are three old traders. The smack " Banshee," patched and repaired beyond description, and her carcase scratched and torn by uncomfortable moorings. There is the brig, " New Draper," which was a floating coal-yard, and the schooner " Capricorn," as spruce as a daisy. The vessels are enveloped in a Manx atmosphere, and " there's a `couth' in the air." A story is told of one of these vessels, probably it was the " Banshee," how she once left Whitehaven for Douglas with a cargo of coal. A dense fog fell upon the sea. About midnight the skipper said to his crew: "We'll give her the anchor now." In the morning, when the fog cleared, they saw land looming on every side. They hailed a passing tramp steamer and were told they were in Belfast Lough. " By gough !" said the skipper. " We sailed yesterday from Whitehaven for Douglas, and some way the nose of the old smack lost the smell of the mud in Johnny Hogg's Bay."
N the erection and decoration of a church we have to depend upon the architect and the artist for structural design, for ornamentation and interior decoration. It is the feeling of beauty and repose in the sanctuary that relieves the mind from the distractions of the outside world, that up-lifts the heart of the worshipper and creates a spirit of reverential joy.
The finest productions of Art were lavished upon the Mediaeval churches to delight the eye and instruct the mind, and the interior of the Church of St. Thomas in Douglas bears witness to the selective power of the artist in the religious symbo-lism of its interior decoration. It is also expressive of the principle which governed the artist in his work, namely, "Whatso-ever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
The work of decoration extended over several years. Canon Savage was respon-sible for the religious subjects and general scheme. Nicholson supplied the full-sized drawings, designed and supervised every detail of ornamentation, and gave his time and skill as a freewill offering to the Church.
According to an account of the decoration published in 1910 by Canon Savage, the colours of the background of the wall decoration are similar to the work in Canterbury Cathedral and Friskney Church, Lincolnshire, which is 12th century work. In the decoration of St. Thomas' there is scriptural teaching and the avoidance of unmeaning ornament. There is also an unbroken sequence in the decoration and a careful arrangement of the biblical story from Genesis to the book of Revelation.
Above the entrance in the west gallery is the Tree of Life and an angel with a flaming sword to guard the way. In the chancel there is a company of angels praising God. On the south wall we have the Annunciation and the triumphant multitude of the redeemed that no man can number. Between the words of Scripture and the oak panelling the walls are decorated with wheat and grapes interspersed in a diaper work of vine leaves. In the eastern wall on the mullions of the three windows is the Tree of Life.
The skill of the artist combined with the imagination of the cleric have, through the medium of decorative Mediaeval Art, translated upon the walls of the church the most beautiful scriptural symbolism of the biblical story of Creation and of the redeeming ministry of the Cross that the Island possesses.
In St. German's Church at Peel there are paintings of the four Evangelists by Nicholson. They are behind the altar in the niches of the reredos. The work has been executed upon oak panels, and the figure of each Evangelist is draped with a tunic and an outer or upper robe that resembles the Roman toga. The background to the figure is diaper ornamentation in quiet brown tones relieved with gold, and in the lower corner of each panel there is the conventional symbol of the Evangelist.
In the apse surrounding the altar there are six larger panels representing Old Testa-ment characters. The decoration harmonises with its surroundings. It is a creation of religious idealism expressive of sincerity, refinement and good craftsmanship. Other works entrusted to the artist were the decoration of St. Barnabas Church and the designs for the stained glass windows in the Parade Primitive Methodist Church in Douglas.
The greater part of the Church decoration was executed by James Bell Nicholson, a brother of the artist and a co-partner in the firm of Nicholson Bros. All Nicholson's work connected with Churches conformed with the architectural conception of mural decoration. It was chiefly conventional ornament based on twelfth and thirteenth century Art restricted to its religious purpose, and there is nothing to offend the eye or discord with the architecture of the building.
THE first volume of the Manx Note Book was issued in January, 188. It was a laudable attempt by three Manxmen to put into permanent form some of the history, the antiquities and the folklore of the Island and record current events that were exclusively Manx. A. W. Moore, who had an extensive know-ledge of the Island's history, philology and lore, was the editor and guiding spirit of the enterprise.
Apart from the literary merits of the book, there were the illustrations by Nicholson and the excellent and artistic printing by G. H. Johnson. The printer was an artist in his own craft, with a reputation for good typography that was recognised beyond the boundaries of Manxland. A London newspaper commenting on the book said: " We have no London magazine that could approach it so far as the printing is concerned."
In the three volumes of the Note Book there are no less than one hundred and fifty sketches, initial letters and tail pieces which were drawn by Nicholson.
Like many other good things that appear on earth, the serial died in the flower of its youth. Governor Walpole wrote its elegy and said it fell a victim to its own superiority. In the closing pages of the third volume, Nicholson has given the miniature portraits of the three men, whose ideals and worthy purpose to make known the Island's treasured lore, had to be sacrificed to an apathetic reception of their work and deficient balance sheet. On the last page of the book there is the figure of a woman dressed in deep mourning. Did Nicholson intend it for an obituary notice, or is it a. final touch of veiled irony on expending his artistic skill on a venture that brought disappointment and loss to those who had produced the book?
Beside the Note Book, Nicholson had many commissions for illuminated addresses. The engrossing was in black letters, and a watercolour painting in strong pure colours imparted a splendour and decorative value which made it a work of Art and a source of delight to its owner.
Salute the friends one by one.-St. John.
THE firm of Nicholson Bros. was situated on Well Road hill, and the artist's studio was on the second floor of the building. A projecting window commanded an eastern view on to a narrow strip of Douglas Bay. Southward there lay before the artist a magnificent colour scheme - old buildings with peaked gables and roofs tinged with green and purple hues, with warm yellows playfully sporting among the masses of cool greys when the sunlight flashed on the scene. In the distance were the undulating curves of the headland dressed in delicate greens canopied by the sky. It was, to those with eyes to see, Nature's Art Gallery, and a favourite saying of Nicholson when one entered the studio was, " Look at those colours!" To reach the studio the visitor had to climb two flights of stairs. On the walls of the stairway were several steel engravings, with a black and white drawing by Nicholson, entitled " Beauty and the Beast." It represented two vessels in Douglas Bay. The picture was a pictorial note of interrogation, requesting the visitor to decide which was " Beauty" and which " the Beast." But there was a secret reason for " Beauty and the Beast" being prominent in that miniature art gallery; it was to decoy the visitor into conversation with Nicholson on the merits of the stairway pictures. By means of the conversation the artist obtained a fairly correct estimate of his visitor's knowledge of Art.
In the choice of friends Nicholson was fastidious. He bided his time with a silent aloofness until he was convinced that his visitor possessed those qualities of mind and heart that he could respect. He could not tolerate duplicity and meanness, but sterling sincerity and a kindly heart won his esteem.
In his early artistic career he was privileged to have the friendship of the late Governor Loch and of Lady Loch. Through her Ladyship's influence the artist's work was brought to the notice of John Ruskin. Ruskin was so delighted with the sketches that he persuaded Nicholson to give him nine pencil drawings.
It was Lady Loch, in conjunction with Mr. Nicholson, who inaugurated the first Art Exhibition in Douglas in 1880.
The Exhibition created an interest in the Fine Arts among the people, and led to the establishment of an Art School in Douglas.
Another friend of the artist was A. W. Moore, the Island's historian and one of her most patriotic sons. Often well known artists came to the studio. One of the most eccentric was the painter evangelist, Frederick Shields. He was a painter of religious subjects. Shields was a poor lad who had been educated at a Charity School and began life as a lithographic designer. He was one of the first group of Pre-Raphaelites, and he was intimate with Rosetti, Millais, Ruskin, Holman Hunt, and other artists of the Mid-Victorian period. The decoration of the Chapel of the Ascension in Bayswater Road, London, engaged him for about eighteen years. It is a monument of his art, and the Chapel is said to be one of the most interesting shrines in the City. Nicholson found him to be an interesting personality. A man with strong prejudices and convictions. Age appeared to have sat lightly upon him, for he decorated Eaton Hall for the Duke of Westminster when he was seventy years of age. His criticism with regard to Nicholson's work was, "Your drawing is perfect, and no one can instruct you in the practice of Art."
Another artist who visited Nicholson was E. H. Corbould, the drawing master to Queen Victoria's children. He belonged to the traditional style of painting, and was not an admirer of the Impressionist School. He expressed surprise at the realistic effects Nicholson had obtained by his broad handling of masses of colour, and confessed that the pictures were true impressions of Nature, but it was impossible for him to paint in Nicholson's style.
When Nicholson was connected with the Theatre Royal, he was interested in a young man who was at that time almost unknown to the theatrical world. The young actor occasionally visited the artist at his studio, and Nicholson prophesied that the youth would have a brilliant career. The young actor became Sir Henry Irving.
On the art of how to draw or paint, Nicholson was silent. He would say, " If you cannot draw or paint without being taught, you will never be an artist." Consequently he shunned all pupils save one lady artist, a portrait painter of distinction, who was favoured with one free lesson each week. When she submitted her paintings to G. F. Watts for his opinion of her work, he asked, " Who has been your teacher?" When she told him, Watts replied, " Well, he knows how to paint."
Among the local friends who visited the artist were T. E. Brown, the Manx poet; Canon Savage, Vicar of St. Thomas' Church; Miss Graves, the lady artist, whose silk work is in many a Manx home; Mr. Matheson, who was a skilled worker in repousse work; and other friends who were interested in the Fine Arts.
Whatever Nicholson was in the outer world, in the studio his joy-sense had become a habit. The visitor found by the artist's easel and fireside fair weather and cheeriness. When the rain was lashing against the studio windows and the wind shaking the roof rafters, the artist would be humming snatches of opera music or enjoying racy conversation with his friends. His conversation was of a light and wholesome diet, spiced and sweetened with humorous tales of the quaint sayings and foibles of Manx folk he had known.
Apart from the humour and geniality, there was in Nicholson a proud reserve, and sometimes a bluntness of speech that indicated a character of mind not to be trifled with. When Nicholson was vexed and passionately indignant, to paraphrase a line of Shakespeare, " he would speak poniards and every word was a stab."
A contemporary artist in describing an unpleasant encounter Nicholson had with one who had offended him, said that Mr. X's countenance turned " vermilion" under Nicholson's storm of wrath and indignation.
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, wheel the sofa round, 'tis pleasant through the loop-holes of retreat to peep at such a world.-Cowper.
NICHOLSON believed in the joy of life, and he had a keen sense of humour. For out-door sports he had no inclination, save the pleasure of watching the annual regatta which was held in Douglas Bay. His tastes were intellectual and artistic. He delighted to search the fields of knowledge and to enrich his mind, even venturing into the science of astronomy. His ear was attuned to enjoy the best music, and he dwelt with the great composers who had blessed mankind with " the concord of sweet sounds; men who would take the prisoned soul and lap it in Elysium."
His Music School was the old paint shop on Well Road Hill. On winter evenings, when the work of the day was over, the select orchestra assembled. Selections from Handel, Mozart, Hadyn and Mendelssohn were interspersed with the " Banks of Allan Water," " The Blue Bells of Scotland," and finally " Home Sweet Home" and " Ellan Vannin" brought the musicians back from the heavenly plains of the Oratorios to human dwellings and the pathos of sundered hearts.
The members of this orchestra did not reserve their talents for commercial ends or for their own aesthetic pleasure. They frequently gave their services for the benefit of Town Charities. The Annual J. M. Nicholson Concert, which was held in Victoria Hall in the Christmas season, was one of the most enjoyable and high-class concerts of the year. The people had an opportunity of hearing the choicest music at a price that everyone could afford to pay. The charge for admission to the dress circle was sixpence. Those who occupied the circle were known as " the Quality." The price to all other parts of the hall was one penny. At a concert held in 1867, no less than one thousand and thirty-two pennies were taken at the doors. The proceeds of the concerts, after expenses had been deducted, were given to the town authorities for the benefit of the poor.
Young Nicholson's musical education was turned to good account. As an apprentice with small earnings, it seemed a forlorn hope for him to purchase books or pay a teacher to instruct him. What could he do? He believed that you must pay for your own whistle, that poets and artists are born with special gifts for their calling. They cannot be manufactured on the basis of a cheap contract, and no artificial means can create what Nature has refused to bestow. It has been said that an optimist is one who sees an opportunity in every difficulty, and a pessimist is one who sees a difficulty in every opportunity. Nicholson knew that he carried the keys that would open doors to his own achievements. He was an optimist with a resolute will, determined to conquer disability, and not be daunted by unfavourable circumstances.
One day there appeared an advertise-ment in the local paper that a piccolo player was required at the old Theatre Royal in Wellington Street. Nicholson went to Philips, the stage manager, and offered his services. To test the applicant's skill, the manager handed to the youth several difficult pieces of music to play. The rendering of the selections was so excellent that the young musician was engaged for the orchestra before he left the building. As Nicholson was working every day at his trade, Philips released him from attending rehearsals and supplied him each week with an advance copy of the programme of the play.
The orchestra in the Theatre Royal brought Nicholson into the world of dramatic art. The drama opened to him a wide horizon and became a training centre for his future career. Human nature was depicted on the stage by some of the greatest actors, and there were the scenic decorations, the costumes of the players, the gorgeous pageantry, the burlesque, the tragic that thrilled the audience, and the pathos that was allied to tears.
There were local plays of a jocular nature acted behind the scenes, where the ropes worked and the candles flickered, which afforded much amusement. One member of the orchestra had an undue regard for his own importance. His ambition to be head and shoulders above his fellow artistes was attained by the construction of a special stool which raised him six inches above all the other members of the orchestra. Perched on his throne he simply breathed adulation unto himself, much to the chagrin of his companions. A plot was hatched to bring down the mighty from his seat. It worked on the principle of a sliding scale. Once a week half an inch or more was secretly sawn off the legs of the stool. In due time Mr. X. had descended to the level of ordinary mortals.
Occasionally Nicholson painted the scenery for the plays. This broad scale of painting probably led to the massive tech nique of his later impressionist work. A small event happened about this time that tested his resources. One of H.M. gunboats cast anchor in Douglas Bay. The town was astir, and many schemes organised to give the crew a royal reception. The play " Black-eyed Susan" was quickly staged and the officers and men of the ship invited to the theatre. Nicholson was commissioned to paint a representation of the deck of a man-o'-war. He went to Douglas Head and made a rapid sketch of the interior of the naval battery with the guns run out for action. From the sketch he painted the scene. It was a picture with the guns painted the full size. The audience filled every part of the building, and when the curtain rose there was a burst of applause and loud cries to bring out the artist. Nicholson, who was hiding in the side wings, made a sudden escape through a small door into the lane at the rear of the Theatre.
His flute and piccolo gave him great delight. When he visited Italy he took his piccolo to the sunny land and beguiled the evening hours playing pieces from the Italian operas. One evening, when he was playing in his own room, he heard footsteps in the corridor. Upon opening the door, to his astonishment he found the place crowded with listeners. " O Signor ! O Signor !" they pleaded. " Do play for us again." The music ceased - Nicholson was " jus' the shy."
A strange incident occurred when the artist was returning to the Island. At one stage of the journey, while he was seated in the train, he suddenly became silent and depressed, and his countenance changed. His companion, who sat opposite to him, said: " John, what is the matter?" He replied: " My father is dead." When he came ashore at Douglas, the first news he received was of his father's death, which had occurred about the hour of Nicholson's dejection in the train.
When our artist was in a serious mood, one could detect a strain of the mystic in his nature, and a belief in those psychic incidents which happen in the region of human consciousness and are inexplicable.
IT may be the function of higher critics to find defects in this miniature picture of John Nicholson's art. They may say that friendship with the artist and an admiration for his work have unconsciously influenced the writer to allow warmth of feeling and imagination, rather than the cool judgment: of the intellect, to enthrone Nicholson in a place of honour to which he is not entitled. Such an impeachment will not distress the writer.
In the world of Art there are those who rejoice in the discovery of imperfections. They find the spot in the sun, the mote in their brother's eye and the distorted line in the masterpiece. Men condemned Rembrandt for painting Nature as he saw it. They said of his pictures that the paint was running down the panel like mud. It is not likely that Nicholson's work will escape adverse criticism. Critics will say that there are contradictions in some of his pictures; that he was rather a maker of pictures than an artist; that his figures are not correct; that he painted in an exaggerated scale of colour; that when he returned from Italy he changed to a style of painting which did not satisfy his admirers.
Frequently unsympathetic and destructive criticisms are passed on works of art by those who are devoid of artistic sensibility. Of such a critic Ruskin wrote in 1843: " As for your saying Turner's trees are wiggy, you should have a wigging for it, but you will know better soon."
Nicholson's pictures will survive the best and the worst criticisms that have been pronounced upon them, and his fame as an artist and the value of his work will increase with advancing years. He has tried to interpret his dreams: the visions he saw in the land of his birth. Some of his pictures may have "the light that is not on sea or land, the glory of the poet's dream," and such will receive the condemnation of the hypercritic.
When John Nicholson died in 1913, a few brief paragraphs in the local Press paid tribute to his greatness as an artist. They said: " No Manx artist has ever approached Nicholson for true artistic perception and fineness of execution." " But for his invincible aversion to anything within the nature of popular applause, it is well-nigh certain that he would have ranked with the greatest of Victorian artists. He managed to keep out of the limelight, which was so distasteful to him. Modesty with him was carried to a point that almost constituted a fault." Further, a contemporary writes: " Mr. Nicholson had little of the common vein about him. He would decline to sell a painting for reasons which were not known to any one but himself. He gratuitously designed and supervised the decoration of the Churches of St. Thomas and St. Barnabas, charging only for material and wages. By his death the Island has been deprived of a son of splendid worth and ability. He was indeed a Manxman of whom succeeding generations of Manxmen will grow proud."
Towards the end of September 1913, a meeting was held at the suggestion of Dowager Lady Loch, to initiate a memorial that would perpetuate the memory of the artist and bear record of what he had done for Art in his native Isle.
It was proposed that a permanent collection of his works should be established in the Island, and a committee was appointed to ascertain what form the memorial should take. It was a laudable ambition on the part of the artist's friends to honour the dead. They launched a scheme which was worthy of acceptation, yet failed, through no fault of theirs, to create a public interest in the cause they advocated. Alas, Nicholson has been almost forgotten. The Island's poet has been remembered. The Island's greatest artist has practically been unrecog-nised.
Happily, his pictures are safeguarded in the Island's Museum, but through the want of a Picture Gallery they are cabined in a room that murders the artist's handiwork with conflicting lights and overcrowded wall space.
When Nicholson's pictures were presented as a free gift to the town, the least that the artist and his works deserved was a nobly planned Public Art Gallery erected on a suitable site. It would have given prestige to Douglas.
Unfortunately the radiant colours, the loveliness of composition and atmosphere, and the æsthetic records of the Island's beauty are exhibited in the Lecture Hall of the Museum. If the pictures were hung on the line of vision in the best light, in suitable galleries, they would charm the eye and give pleasure to those who have a regard for the beautiful and for the educative value of Art.
True Art is a perennial inspiration, and its refining influences of the highest value to a people. " The works of poets, painters, moralists and historians which are built upon general Nature live for ever."
One morning in the year 1913, when a grey light was on sea and land, the writer of these memoirs went to hold converse with his artist friend. All was quiet. The blinds were lowered on the windows; a picture was on the easel, the pencils and the open colour-box lay on the table, and a subdued light with half tones in shadow suffused the studio. A silence, a vacant chair, an unlit fire in the ingle-nook made known that the artist's work was finished: " that man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening."