William Nicholson was born in 1872, the same year as Aubrey Beardsley. Though completely different in style and technique, each revolutionized the course of graphic art in the nineties. Nicholson and his brother-in-law, James Pryde-as the Beggarstaff Brothers-developed a new form of poster art which combined masses of three or four colors around a central silhouette. These vigorous forms are in marked contrast to the tedious line work, which was then characteristic of the Victorian period. Through a recommendation by James McNeill Whistler, Nicholson began to illustrate for the publisher William Heinemann. Between 1897 and 1900 he illustrated five works: An Alphabet, An Almanac of Twelve Sports, Twelve Portraits, London Types, and The Square Book of Animals. In addition, he designed Heinemann's enduring windmill colophon. An Alphabet, the first book to appear, contains 26 portraits. A self-portrait appears as the first plate, followed by a portrait of James Pryde. Nicholson cut the illustrations himself on woodblocks. A small part of the edition was printed from the actual woodblocks, which he then colored by hand. Most of the edition consists of color lithographs after the woodcuts.

In An Alphabet and the subsequent works, Nicholson has refined the original Beggarstaff concept. The backgrounds are now composed of earth tones and black. In contrast to these muted masses is a most purposefully restrained use of color. While other artists of the Art Nouveau period were producing veritable color charts, Nicholson demonstrated that less is more. William Nicholson made his impact on the development of graphic art in the twentieth century before his thirtieth birthday. Later he turned to painting and stage design. He was knighted in 1936 and died in 1949. His eldest son is the artist Ben Nicholson. — Paul Liss


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Other works


Campbell, Colin. William Nicholson: The Graphic Work. London: Barrie & Jenkins Ltd 1992, pp 100 and 198.

Last modified 3 December 2015