It’s the typical Victorian story: boy meets girl, both struggling artists; boy marries girl in the face of stiff family opposition; girl’s artist brother comes to visit and ends up living with them for two years; boy meets new brother-in-law and forms a long-lasting and successful artistic partnership. That’s the happy part of the story. The sad story is, as so often, the girl’s, left to raise four children and manage two households, painting when she can but overshadowed by her successful brother and husband, until she dies of the Spanish influenza, only 47.
The boys were the struggling young painters William (‘the Kid’) Nicholson (1872–1949) and his brother‐in‐law James (‘Jimmy’) Pryde (1866–1941), the girl Pryde’s sister, Mabel (1871–1918). The Nicholsons would eventually have their reputations eclipsed by their eldest son Ben, the modernist artist at the centre of the mid-century St Ives group along with his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. But an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge brings together the three figures, with rather more of a focus on the two men in their early partnership as the brothers ‘Beggarstaff’, a name they chose for its sonorous Englishness.
I knew a little of Nicholson père from the marvellous Girl with the Tattered Glove (1909), a highlight of the Fitzwilliam’s permanent collection and prominently displayed in its room of 20th-century British Art. The girl in the painting is, as the Fitzwilliam’s notes have it, a ‘Cockney laundress’ called Lottie Stafford who also sat for Augustus John and Walter Sickert. ‘The world weary, somewhat melancholic, sitter’, the notes say, ‘stares resignedly into space as she inconspicuously displays her gloves, damaged goods: a metaphor, perhaps, for her life?’
I know nothing, however, of Nicholson’s early collaborations with Pryde, most of them occasional works for the theatre, generally marked by a via negativa collage style, where everything is painted except the main subject. The Don Quixote poster (1895) – reproduced in the exhibition’s excellent souvenir – with its white horse made out of sheer white space and outlines against a dark windmill, is the high point of this stage of their careers.
The exhibition finds room for the major works, the most impressive being Pryde’s Human Comedy sequence (1909 onward). Twelve pictures (the last one unfinished) depict the stages of life (birth, marriage, ageing and – how not? – death) playing out in and around an enormous, somewhat Gothic, four-poster bed, based on Pryde’s recollections of being taken in childhood to the bedroom in Holyrood Palace that had once been occupied by Mary, Queen of Scots.
But, appropriately given their roots designing posters, the works that most linger in the memory are the most whimsical. Nicholson was the illustrator for Margery Williams’s children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), and the book’s popularity must have had a good deal to do with the quality of his drawings for it. Financially astute throughout his career (in this he was unlike Pryde, who struggled in later life to finish paintings), he taught himself to make woodcuts and produced, in 1922, a wonderfully eccentric alphabet book: A for Artist, L for Lady, M for Milkmaid, N for News-boy… [goldmark]
Mabel Nicholson only gets only one painting in this exhibition, Harlequin with Chair, one of a series in which she depicts her daughter Nancy in harlequin costume, probably in the family’s London home in Mecklenburgh Square. She also appears as the subject of a small pencil and watercolour by her husband, from the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, looking – as she was once (flatteringly?) described by the satirist Max Beerbohm, a family friend – ‘like the result of an intrigue between Milton and the Mona Lisa’. She is wearing a large hat, rapt in the book she’s reading, and doesn’t seem to be posing.
Further reading and listening
A short essay on Mabel Nicholson with good reproductions of her paintings; an illuminating lunchtime talk at the Fitzwilliam Museum, by Stephen Calloway, the curator of the Beggarstaffs exhibition; the exhibition souvenir.