Fascinating Relationship: Two Still lifes by William Nicholson
The name William Nicholson (1872–1949) is not well known today, despite the fact that he was prolific and somewhat notorious in his time. Even in his native Britain, he is best known as the father of the abstract painter Ben Nicholson. This is in part because his paintings – still lifes for the most part – looked old-fashioned to mid-century eyes, and his reputation as a painter did not really last beyond his death.
There are three paintings by William Nicholson in the National Gallery of Canada's collection, each donated in 1946 as part of the Vincent Massey bequest. The latest of the three, dated 1938 and sold by the artist in 1941, is extremely unusual within his œuvre. While constantly exploring the tension between representation and the physical reality of his paint, Nicholson typically pitched his paintings just on the safe side of the line – clear depictions of elegantly poised realities. In Glass and Fruit that is not the case – it is certainly Nicholson’s most abstract work.
It is so abstract in fact, that the painting is not easy to read, and it was only when seen next to a related and more representational version of the painting that the nature of the jug became clear – it is a so-called pebble jug, formed out of fused blobs of clear glass, with a characteristic dimpled surface.
The related painting, Glass Jug with Plates and Pears, is in a private collection in England and was brought to the Gallery's Restoration and Conservation Laboratory by the director of the BBC's television show Fake or Fortune, which deals fundamentally with issues of authenticity of works of art. This work had long been thought to be by Nicholson, but a recent catalogue raisonné had denied that attribution. The painting's owner had reached out to the BBC, who set about the business of hopefully working out the truth.
The BBC contacted us because a physical and technical comparison of the two paintings might prove significant, and the film crew and Philip Mould, one of the presenters and the show’s resident expert in art history, came to Ottawa. They were accompanied by the Head of Art Conservation and Technology at London's Courtauld Institute of Art, Aviva Burnstock, a much respected colleague and personal friend of mine. She had performed analysis on the London painting before travelling to Ottawa, where in the meantime complimentary investigations had been made on the Gallery's painting at the Canadian Conservation Institute.
While the paintings are different in approach and therefore look quite different, in terms of physical characteristics, they are intimately connected and share technical fundamentals: the formulation of the paint is the same, they are both painted on canvas-boards from the same supplier and Nicholson’s handwriting can be seen on the back of both works. In addition, Nicholson’s curious habit of monogramming paintings with his initials on top of a wet-paint thumb-print is also in evidence on both.
All of this pointed compellingly towards both paintings being by William Nicholson, but the physical and technical evidence did not ultimately convince the Nicholson expert, the author of the catalogue, who thought it more likely that one of Nicholson’s friends or students had made it. Nicholson painted with British politician and amateur painter Sir Winston Churchill, for example, and advised him on technique and which colours to use, which could explain the technical similarities of the works. While this is a possibility, it is highly improbable – so improbable in fact, that to many it is an unreasonable supposition. Why would somebody like Churchill have applied a fake monogram, for instance? In situations such as this, applying Occam’s Razor – the rule that the simpler theory is the more likely one – can be immensely useful. The simplest and, in our view, only reasonable explanation for the forensics of this situation is that Nicholson painted both paintings.
If we accept that Nicholson painted both, then we clearly have a close and fascinating relationship between two paintings that sheds light on the genesis of the Gallery's work, which as noted, is unusual within the artist's oeuvre. The London Glass Jug with Plates and Pears was likely his first attempt at this motif, and perhaps one with which he was not entirely satisfied. Returning to the problem, he clearly did not feel the need to fully work the Gallery's Glass and Fruit up to his typical level of finish. Instead, recognizing that he had captured what he wanted in the initial roughing-in of the composition, he simply pushed the highlights on the jug to resolve the fall and play of light through the uneven thicknesses of glass, with its lens-like refractive form. This is in fact the technical exercise he was setting himself with these two paintings. Interestingly Nicholson's title for the painting, Glass and Fruit, refers to the material of the jug rather than the object itself, while the title of the London painting, in Nicholson’s handwriting on the back, is "Glass Jug".
In applying his monogram, Nicholson was effectively declaring an unfinished painting to be finished, the most extreme example in his work of a clear tendency in later years to playfully and flamboyantly explore lack of finish and abstraction to make memorable works.
As a form of closure to what may ultimately be viewed as an unsatisfactory outcome, I spoke with the owner of the London painting. To my pleasant surprise she told me she had found the overall experience fascinating and immensely positive. As well as receiving overwhelming support from friends and family, and even her dentist, she had been cheered by how gripping and vital people had found the issue, and the sense of community such discussion can produce.
The William Nicholson episode of BBC's Fake or Fortune (Season 7, Episode 1) was aired in August 2018. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.