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John Miller Nicholson

Epithet: 'The Island's Greatest Painter' (1840-1913)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

John Miller Nicholson, though extremely talented, was an exceptionally shy man. Had it not been for his aversion to public attention and his non-commercial attitude, he would have been amongst the most widely acclaimed of the British Victorian painters.

John Ruskin (1819-1900), the eminent Victorian critic and author of Modern Painters (1843-60), regarded Nicholson's works so highly that he purchased a number of pencil sketches at E5 each and gave them to art galleries in various parts of Britain for their permanent collections. The two men frequently corresponded, with Ruskin making constructive criticism of Nicholson's work.

Nicholson was born on 29th January 1840 at Church Street in Douglas, the eldest in the family of three sons of William Nicholson, house-painter and decorator, and his first wife Christian, who was a daughter of John Bell, a Douglas shipwright. He was a natural draughtsman and spent much of his spare time copying pictures or engravings from books and magazines. Educated at Douglas Diocesan Grammar School, the young lad's artistic bent was noticed by the headmaster Mr Pearson, who encouraged him to continue developing his talents. This early training was to serve him well as an artist in later life. On leaving school and becoming an apprentice painter in his father's business in Well Road Hill, Douglas, he continued to build on the artistic skills he had taught himself as a boy.

His mother was Manx but John seems to have inherited a passion for the sea from his paternal grandfather, who was a mariner and owner of three brigs in Whitehaven. Like most artists he was fascinated by light, and he could be seen most mornings, before starting work, on Douglas shore sketching in pencil the sunrise and its effects on the ever-changing vistas of sea and land. Often, too, he was on the bustling Douglas quayside sketching the people, the buildings or the vessels in the harbour.

Nicholson's pencil sketches are meticulously drawn works of art, with minute notes written in the margins recording the time, date, weather conditions and colours. He became so adept that he could complete a detailed sketch within 30 minutes. Years later he would refer to these sketch books for an oil painting or watercolour and they are so remarkable that when, in the 1960s, his grandson John Hobson Nicholson had photographic slides made of them, they could be projected onto the largest of screens and still reveal hidden details.

At exhibitions at such venues as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and the Grosvenor Gallery in London, his pictures were often purchased on the day of opening. From 1873 Nicholson had exhibited frequently and he was once offered one guinea per square inch for as many pictures as he could supply. He bluntly refused the offer.

In 1880 Ruskin wrote to Nicholson, firmly but constructively criticising his work. He urged him, ' ... but you are cramped and chilled by Isle of Manishness - you ought to take knapsack on shoulder - grey paper book - half a dozen colours and a bit of chalk - and so walk to Naples and back'. Ruskin was the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford and author of the monumental Stones of Venice, so in the spring of 1882 Nicholson travelled to Italy, intending to spend three months studying architecture and the Old Masters. But he quickly became disgusted with that country, and denouncing southern Italy as ugly and dirty, he returned after only six weeks. He had, though, sketched profusely on his travels and back in the Island painted a number of large oils of Verona and Venice.

These canvases, in the style of Turner, impressionistic with detail suppressed but with definite values given to light, shade, colour, composition and atmosphere, were revolutionary when compared with anything he had painted before. He exhibited two of the oil paintings of Venice in London and demand for his pictures grew after they were highly praised by the critics. This adulation so embarrassed Nicholson, whose shyness increased with age, that he ceased exhibiting anywhere other than the Isle of Man.

When the Manx Notebook was published in January 1885 the editor, Arthur William Moore, asked him to produce sketches, initial letters and tail pieces. In the twelve issues of this prestigious magazine which were printed from 1885-87 there are over 150 illustrations by Nicholson.

In August 1918 the Pierre Henri Joseph Baume Trustees purchased for £1000 the whole of the 'Studio Collection of 57 Pictures of the late John Miller Nicholson, which had been advertised for public auction on 8th August in the Masonic Hall, Douglas. In 1927 the Trustees entered into an agreement with the Manx Museum that the collection be kept and displayed there, and following further bequests and purchases over 100 examples of his work are now held.

In 1985, Nicholson was unequivocally described in a booklet written by Valerie Roach as the Island's 'greatest painter'. There must be few people who disagree with her. It is probably also true to say that he was as accomplished a photographer as he was a painter. Photography was a pursuit he embraced in later life, but he gave as much care and study to it as he did to everything else. Publications are still appearing which use Nicholson's photographs, and they show the same concerns for composition and the effects of tone and light as are evidenced in his sketches and paintings. He recorded scenes around Douglas, particularly depicting the promenade, harbour and quayside. In 1891 he won medals at international exhibitions in Liverpool and Leeds and a further one at a local exhibition in Gloucester.

In the Island, his illuminated addresses were in great demand. They usually incorporated a watercolour of a Manx scene together with the carefully-executed script for which Nicholson was famed. The painting and decorating business, in partnership with his brother, James Bell Nicholson, also produced some artistic work of great merit, especially in its ecclesiastical decoration. In May 1885 J.M. Nicholson painted the four Evangelists and six Old Testament figures on oak panels in St German's Church, Peel (now the Island's Cathedral), but the finest examples of the firm's ecclesiastical work are the murals in St Thomas's Church, Douglas. These were painted between 1896 and 1910, with James undertaking all the lettering to the texts. Now recognised as being of international importance, the murals were restored in 1998 at a cost of over £250,000.

James was the organist at St Barnabas's Church in Douglas, as well as being a composer and musical arranger. An interesting example of the brothers' further cooperation was the publishing of James's four-part arrangement (SATB) of the traditional Manx air, 'Mylecharaine'. The booklet epitomises the Nicholsons' dedication to quality; containing just the one song and intended for the normal rough and tumble encountered by song sheets, it is, nevertheless, both a work of art and a luxury item. It was sensitively printed by G.H. Johnson of Douglas on hand-made paper and it has a helpful introduction by James with elegant pictures and designs by John.

When Joseph Edward Douglas wrote his biography of John Miller Nicholson in 1931 the printers unfortunately misspelt Nicholson's middle name as 'Millar' throughout the book. This led to some confusion in later literature and at exhibitions, but was finally corrected in 1985 by Peter Kelly.

John Miller Nicholson married Ann Jane Coole on 1st November 1870 and they had two children, Frank and Florence. Nicholson died on 24th March 1913, after falling down the stairs to his cellar at 1 Laureston Terrace in Douglas. He is buried in Douglas Borough Cemetery.

Biography written by Alan Kelly.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.341-3)

Culture Vannin


Occupation / profession: artist

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 29 January 1840

Place of birth: Douglas, Isle of Man

Date of death: 24 March 1913

Place of death: Isle of Man


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Very intresting - David chambers Report this