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John Hobson Nicholson

Epithet: Artist and designer of Manx postage and revenue stamps, currency notes and gold coinage (1911-1988)

Record type: Biographies

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

John Nicholson was a grandson of the artist John Miller Nicholson. His birthday was the same as the great J.M.W. Turner's, and he regarded himself as an artist in the Turner tradition.

Nicholson inherited his grandfather's artistic abilities, along with a large library of books on Turner, and became an accomplished painter in watercolours, oils and pastels. He could paint a sea or landscape, frame it and display it for sale all in the same day!

He signed himself 'John H. Nicholson' to avoid confusion with the Sheffield marine artist whose style was very similar and who signed himself 'John Nicholson'. The 'H' stood for Hobson, his mother's maiden name - thus his family nickname of 'Hobs'

John Nicholson and his brother Thomas (Tom) Frank Nicholson attended evening classes conducted at the Kensington Road Art School by Archibald Knox. In a competition Tom came first and his elder brother second, but Tom did not develop his artistic talents. In later life John became a part-time teacher of interior decorating and lettering at the art school; students joined him on painting forays and several became lifelong friends. He is remembered for his generosity; to poor students in particular, he would surreptitiously donate his own paints, brushes or papers with such remarks as, 'I was tidying a cupboard, came across this and wondered if you could use it'.

As a youth Nicholson joined the family decorating business of Nicholson Bros., remaining with it until shortly before his death. From about 1962 they had two shops in Douglas: one in Duke Street, run by Tom, specialised in decorating supplies; the other in Strand Street was run by John and catered for artists. It also incorporated a gallery devoted to his own work. He habitually went to bed in the mid-evening so that he could rise early next day, believing that the early morning light was the best of the day for an artist. His unerring assessment of tonal values he attributed to his having joined the decorating trade in the days when each firm still manufactured its own paints, and knowing how much of each pigment was required was a skill to be acquired by every apprentice.

Nicholson was elected to the British Water Colour Society in 1939, and became a Fellow of the Institute of British Decorators and Interior Designers in 1948; then in 1951 he became the first Manxman to be elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Subsequently he was elected also to the Pastel Society and Fellowships of the Royal Society of Art and the British Water Colour Society

He became noted for his production of illuminated parchments, several of which were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. He also designed and executed a shield bearing the coats of arms of the Island and its four towns which was displayed aboard the royal yacht Britannia.

Within the Isle of Man he was best known in his middle years for a series of paintings of scenic points around the TT course. He had been a keen motorcyclist in his youth, and for many years held the record for the fastest walk round the course.

In early life his physical prowess was impressive. He often walked the fourteen miles from Douglas to a cottage the family owned at the Lhen, and back again. He and his father once rowed their boat all the way from Douglas, round the Point of Ayre, to the Lhen beach.

In 1957, after the UK Post Office responded to pressure from Tynwald to issue Manx regional postage stamps, a Tynwald advisory committee commissioned three local artists to produce draft designs. Their remit was to incorporate the Island's Three Legs emblem and an ancient ring chain pattern. Nicholson produced some pencilled 'doodles' on a sheet of paper torn from an exercise book. The developed designs were submitted to the committee and accepted. The UK's General Post Office issued the Island's first 3d regional postage stamp on 18th August 1958. The future Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, so admired these regional stamps that he used no others.

In 1960 Nicholson was asked to produce designs for three denominations of Manx Treasury notes. He produced Manx scenic views surrounded by an ancient Celtic border, and after some amendments the notes were issued on 3rd July 1961. Two notable amendments were the changing of Manx place names from Manx Gaelic, as he had proposed in his sketches, into English, and the removal of the canvas tent from Tynwald Hill in one of his scenes.

Nicholson was elected president of the Isle of Man Art Society in October 1961 and remained president until his death.

In December 1964 Nicholson was awarded the Manannan Trophy for his services to Manx culture. By the time he received it the following November he had helped to design the Island's first-ever gold coinage. Two thousand £5 pieces were issued on 5th July 1965 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Act of Revestment.

When Tynwald approved the production of Manx revenue stamps for the first time in place of overprinted English ones, Nicholson was asked to produce designs. His designs for a nine-stamp set were issued on 5th July 1966.

The following year his commissions included the Roll of Honour of the 1st Manx Service Company for the Great War of 1914-18. Douglas Corporation also engaged him as a colour consultant when it planned a mandatory colour code for the decoration of the Loch Promenade.

When Tynwald finally took over the Manx Post Office, as from 5th July 1973, the designs for the Isle of Man Post Office Authority's first postage stamps were entrusted to Nicholson - the world's first artist to have been commissioned by the same government to design coinage, paper currency, revenue stamps and postage stamps.

He acknowledged the influence of fellow artist Victor Kneale (as chairman of the Post Office Authority), who researched and provided him with design 'roughs' of what was required.

Nicholson's design for the Commemorative Inauguration Stamp, depicting a Viking carrying a battle-axe, was adapted later for a large mosaic at the Post Office headquarters. His stamps depicting landscape and seascape views were hailed by Victor Kneale as masterpieces; people who saw them but knew nothing about the Island would realise that it was no mere rock, but a small nation.

After marrying his third wife, Thelma, Nicholson did much of his work in a studio at their home, The Hermitage, Port Erin. His designs for 180 postage stamps for the Post Office Authority made him one of the most prolific designers of postage stamps in the world.

Waiting to go into hospital for a hip replacement, Nicholson took his own life on the night of 9th February 1988 - the eve of the launch by the Isle of Man Post Office Authority of the first set of definitive postage stamps that he had not designed.

In his memory the Rotary Club of Rushen and Western Mann established a Nicholson Foundation to assist artists who could not finance themselves. It also erected a memorial seat on the site of Tom the Dipper's cottage at Ballakillowey, Rushen. From a site nearby he had painted the view of sunrise over the sea which won first prize for the Isle of Man Postal Authority in the Europa international stamp competition.

Biography written by Robert 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.338-40.)

Culture Vannin


Occupation / profession: artist

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 23 April 1911

Date of death: 9 February 1988

Place of death: Port Erin, Rushen, Rushen, Isle of Man

Name Variant: Nicholson


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Extremely useful, enabling write up of the 1958 postage stamp issue. - Phil Smith Report this

An admirer of J Hobs Nicholson - Peter Cross Report this