William Nicholson’s London Types
When William Nicholson designed his stylish “London Types” in 1898 – that together with his “Almanac of Twelve Sports” and “An Illustrated Alphabet” were to make his reputation as a printmaker – his son Ben, who was to eclipse him entirely in the history of British Art through his Modernist works, was only five years old.
Yet, while working within the culture of the British popular print, William Nicholson deliberately chose to use the coarse-grained side of the block in his wood cuts, in a style that owed more to Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese precedents than to native visual traditions – which give these prints an innovative quality, even as they might seem to be celebrating unchanging roles in British society.
Although not strictly “Cries of London,” some of these characters are familiar from earlier series of prints stretching back over the previous century and, recognising this, Nicholson portrays them as quaint curiosities from another age. In each case, the ironic doggerel by W.E. Henley that accompanied them poked fun at the anachronistic nature of these social stereotypes, through outlining the ambivalent existence of the individual subjects – whether the street hawker displaced in Kensington far from his East End home, or the aristocratic lady at Rotten Row challenged by her suburban counterparts, or the drunken Sandwich-man displaying moral texts, or the fifteenth generation Bluecoat boy at Charterhouse School in Smithfield now moved out to Horsham.
These prints continue to fascinate me because, in spite of their chunky monochromatic aesthetic, they manage to convey the human presence with subtlety, placing the protagonists in dynamic relationships both with the viewer and the social landscape of London, as it was in the final years of the nineteenth century. The Lady and the Coster confront the viewer with equal assurance and, the disparity in their conditions notwithstanding, we meet both gazes with empathy. In William Nicholson’s designs, all the subjects retain self-possession because while the prints may illustrate their diverse social situations, their attitude is commonly impassive.
Working in partnership with his brother-in-law James Pryde, under the pseudonym the Beggarstaff Brothers, William Nicholson enjoyed a successful career creating vibrant graphics which served the boom in advertising that happened in the eighteen nineties. After 1900, he shifted his attention to painting, embarking on a series of portraits including J.M.Barrie, Rudyard Kipling and Max Beerbohm that filled the rest of his career. Nicholson had always wanted to paint, regarding his graphic work as a lesser achievement, a reservation illustrated by his modest self-portrait as a pavement artist.
More than a century later, William Nicholson’s “London Types” exist as a noble contribution to the series that have portrayed street life in the capital throughout the centuries, not just for their superlative graphic elegance, but because they reflect the changing society of London at the dawn of the twentieth century with complexity and wit.
News-Boy, the City – “the London ear loathes his speeshul yell…”
Sandwich-Man, Trafalgar Square - “the drunkard’s mouth awash for something drinkable…”
Beef-eater, Tower of London – “his beat lies knee-high through a dust of story.”
Coster, Hammersmith - “deems herself a perfect lady.”
Policeman, Constitution Hill - “whenever pageants pass, he moves conspicuous…”
Lady, Rotten Row - “one of that gay adulterous world.”
Bluecoat Boy, Newgate St. - “the old school nearing exile…”
Flower Girl, - “of populous corners right advantage taking…”
Guardsman, Horseguards Parade. - “of British blood, and bone, and beef and beer.”
Barmaid, any bar – “posing as a dove among the pots.”
Drum-Major, Wimbledon Common – “his bulk itself’s pure genius…”
William Nicholson portrayed himself as pavement artist.
Images copyright © Desmond Banks
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