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Nancy Nicholson (1899 - 1977)

William Nicholson at Work, 1918

Catalogue essay by Candia McWilliam

Nancy Nicholson came of two artistic lines, each rooted in the transfiguration of the domestically observed. Her father was William Nicholson, her mother Mabel Pryde, herself daughter of distinguished Scots artists and sister of James Pryde, whose work summons melodrama from – very often – just a bed in shadows. Her brother was Ben Nicholson, who married Barbara Hepworth. She might have sunk within the large surrounding talents but did not. That it is as herself that we meet Nancy Nicholson, in her work and in written accounts, is testament to her capacities, irreducible talent and sense of self as artist and as individual. She is much memorialised on account of being, in another connection that might have diminished her, first wife to Robert Graves and mother of his older children; she withstood too the testing, and all too biographically tempting, presence of the electrifyingly exigent poet Laura Riding far too far inside this marriage. Yet her art refuses to be ‘smallened’, as she refused to take Graves’s name, this last noted with relaxed curiosity by the great novelist when the couple visited Thomas Hardy, late in his life, at his home Max Gate*. The word ‘smallened’ is Hardy’s own; charged by critics with coining it, he consulted an etymological dictionary – the citation was from his own work. When does freshness become orthodoxy? The fresh word seems apt to this painting that plays so productively with scale, the closely-seen bunch of flowers worked upon by her tiny – but not, I think, belittled – father and approached by her similarly smallened but daring husband Robert Graves in his corner. We feel the tremor of the ladder through our own feet, and at the same time in our head and heart we sense the worth of reaching towards the bunch. The language of the work is satisfying in composition as one would expect of a print maker, effective on contextualising and subversive levels as one would expect of a dedicated feminist, and richly, acutely seen, transmuting an apparent still life into a telling human dynamic. It is more a lively than a still life. Commentary by Candia McWilliam, prize-winning author. * The Sphere 28 January 1928

William Nicholson at Work
x W37cm
Gouache on card. Signed.
Nicholson, Nancy

Nancy Nicholson (1899 - 1977)

Annie ‘Nancy’ Mary Pryde Nicholson was a painter and fabric designer, and the only daughter of esteemed artists Sir William Nicholson (1872–1949) and Mabel Pryde (1871–1918). She married the poet Robert Graves in 1918, although the relationship was not to last. She established Poulk Prints in 1929, and after a period living with poet Geoffrey Taylor in the 1930s, she set up and collaborated with him on the Poulk Press. During this time, she also worked with her brother Ben (1894–1982) and his wife, the artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), on numerous textile designs. A lifelong feminist, Nicholson promoted contraception while it was still illegal, often cycling to villages and setting up stalls in the local area to provide information and support for women. During the 1940s, she had a shop on Motcomb Street in London where she printed and displayed her fabrics, and her work was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1976.

Artworks by the same artist