a guest feature by Colin Coulson

Francis Nicholson is a man who made a difference.

He was born, the son of a weaver, in Pickering, North Yorkshire, in 1753. Upon leaving school, he yearned to become an artist. He trained for three years in Scarborough, and for two short periods in London. At first, he was a portrait painter, working in oils. But his several views of Scampston Hall show that, by 1790, he was taking an increasing interest in landscape water colours.

The water colours of that time were – quite justifiably – described as “stained drawings”. The colours were flat and the pictures lacked depth. But during his residence at Ripon, c.1797 – 1800, Nicholson devised a system whereby he stopped out his light areas with a beeswax solution. This allowed him to apply wash after wash to create deep shadows where he wanted them. By gradually removing the beeswax with turpentine, he could apply the washes in different quantities to different areas, and thus grade the lighting. Finally, the lightest areas would be applied in brilliant colour. The Society of Arts, who purchased the method for twenty guineas in 1799, claimed that Nicholson had brought water colour painting from “stained drawings” to having all the power of oil painting.

Nant mill, North Wales (c.1807) 

Nant mill, detail

Beginning at the house in brilliant morning sunshine at bottom left, we move to ‘A’, where the trees are mist-covered but not to such an extent that the sunlit highlights are obscured. From there, to ‘B’, where any highlights left are very indistinct. And finally, we go to ‘C’ where even the outline of a mountain is almost invisible. Here, Nicholson grades his mist exactly as nature would have it, and the sense of distance is all the greater for it.

Nicholson moved to London in 1801. Three years later, Robert Hills and William Henry Pyne invited him to join them in founding The Society of Artists in Water-colours. As Pyne would later record:

“From the time his [Nicholson‘s] drawings appeared upon the walls of the first exhibition of the Society, many of its members, Professors of landscape, wrought their elegant designs with a greater degree of force and effect.”

His contemporaries dubbed him ‘The Father of English Water-colour Painting’ because of it.

According to Thornbury (1861) the great J. M. W. Turner was wont to describe Francis Nicholson as “my model”, and once related to a Mr. Munro how he had copied Nicholson’s paintings in his youth. Surely, no artist requires a higher recommendation than that! Nicholson’s favourite pupil, the Hon. Mrs. Henrietta Fortescue was the half-sister of Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead. This relationship was probably what led to him doing a series of paintings of the Stourhead estate and vicinity between 1813 and 1816. Nicholson dedicated his book, The Practice of Drawing and Painting Landscape from Nature in Water Colours (1820) to Mrs. Fortescue, and mentions the many kindnesses received from other members of the Hoare family.  They remained life-long friends.
From about 1816, Nicholson applied himself to the development of English lithography, and was described as “first amongst” those few artists who did so. The first of these were published in 1820. Monochrome was all that could be managed at that time, though Nicholson would hand-colour them for those who could afford it.

St. Mary’s Abbey, York (1821)

Until recently, Francis Nicholson was entirely forgotten in his home town. But, in 2010, a group comprising of Judy Dixon, Gordon Bell and Colin Coulson was formed to address this neglect. A 32-page booklet by Colin Coulson, entitled Francis Nicholson of Pickering, is currently available from The Pickering Civic Society, 102, Outgang Road, Pickering, N. Yorks. at £3.50 (p&p free). A web-site is planned for 2011, and a larger volume, edited by Professor Bell, will examine Nicholson’s work in the wider context of English water-colour painting, 1750-1850. This will be published by Blackthorn Press in 2012. An exhibition of Nicholson’s work is planned for Ryedale Folk Museum in 2012, too.

Today, water-colour painting is considered the jewel in the crown of British art. It is surely a national disgrace that the man who, more than any other, brought it from mere stained drawings has been forgotten, even in his own home town. If this group have their way, Turner’s ’model’, Francis Nicholson, will not be forgotten again.