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William Nicholson’s London Types

September 16, 2017
by the gentle author

William Nicholson created his London Types in 1898. They were a set of images that, alongside his Almanac of Twelve Sports and An Illustrated Alphabet, were to make his reputation as a printmaker. At that time, his son Ben who was to eclipse him entirely in the history of British Art was only five years old.

Working within the culture of the British popular print, Nicholson deliberately chose to use the coarse-grained side of the block in his wood cuts. This was a style that owed more to Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese precedents than to native visual traditions, which gave his work an innovative quality, even as he appeared to be celebrating traditional roles in British society.

Although not strictly Cries of London, some of these street characters are familiar from prints stretching back through the previous century and Nicholson portrays them as curiosities from another age. The doggerel by W.E. Henley that accompanied them poked fun at the anachronistic nature of these stereotypes, outlining their equivocal existence  – whether a street hawker displaced in Kensington far from his East End home, or an aristocratic lady at Rotten Row challenged by her suburban counterparts, or a drunken Sandwich-man displaying moral texts, or a fifteenth generation Bluecoat boy at Charterhouse School in Smithfield, now moved out to Horsham.

These chunky monochromatic images fascinate me because they characterise their protagonists with subtlety, placing them in a dynamic relationship with the viewer and the social landscape of London as it was in the final years of the nineteenth century. Irrespective of the disparity in their circumstances, The Lady and The Coster confront us with equal assurance. Nicholson’s subjects retain self-possession because, although the prints illustrate their diverse social situations, their demeanour is consistently impassive.

Working in partnership with his brother-in-law James Pryde under the pseudonym the Beggarstaff Brothers, Nicholson enjoyed a successful career creating lively 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 confirmed by his modest self-portrait as a pavement artist.

William Nicholson’s London Types provide a distinctive contribution to the innumerable series of images that have portrayed street life throughout the centuries, remarkable both for their superlative graphic elegance and as a complex and witty social portrait of London at the dawn of the twentieth century.

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

You may like to take a look at

John Leighton’s London Cries

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

9 Responses leave one →
  1. September 16, 2017

    Wonderful prints! Thanks for sharing. Valerie

  2. September 16, 2017

    But what’s your lead image venting? Toys, or has he got some kind of act?

  3. September 16, 2017

    Beautiful prints.
    The Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio was also fascinated by the Cries of London, he set some of them to music:

  4. September 16, 2017

    I was looking at ‘bluecoat boys’ the other day (à propos the printer Robert Harrild:, and it is clearly much more complicated than just Christ’s Hospital – any chance you could bring your expertise to bear on this in a future blog?

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    September 16, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful, lively images. Particularly enjoyed “News-boy, the City” (somehow I think he would outsell his peers) and the horse in “Policeman, Constitution Hill.”

    Well said –“remarkable both for their superlative graphic elegance and as a complex and witty social portrait of London at the dawn of the twentieth century.”

  6. September 16, 2017

    Oh, marvelous! That drum major is a force of nature. Just look how the artist has captured the sheer volume of that character, and filled the frame with him. I can imagine how crowds must have totally cleared a space for this huge man in his regalia. The heavy shawl, large as a bed
    spread, thrown across his shoulders — and that authoritative scepter. What do you suppose this fellow did in his daily life?
    An incredible narrative BOLD series.
    Loved every one.

  7. September 16, 2017

    wonderful woodcuts Thanks so much for sharing them
    Donna Barnes in Brooklyn, New York

  8. Jim McDermott permalink
    September 16, 2017

    I grew up in a house that had an edition of London Types (though, as Lancashire folk, none of us had ever seen the Smoke). I recall wondering what ‘adulterous’ meant. Strangely, neither my parents nor a succession of Irish great-aunts would enlighten me.

  9. Kimo permalink
    November 15, 2022

    Your third sentence contends that William Nicholson’s son, Ben, “was to eclipse him [his father] completely in the history of British Art.” Perhaps Ben was a bigger celebrity. Perhaps Ben made more money. And, perhaps, Ben was more “on-trend” within his generation. But you cannot tell me that Ben was a better artist than his father—or that William’s talent withers in the shadow of Ben’s talent. I like William Nicholson’s work far more than I do his son’s. An exhibition of William Nicholson’s oil paintings at the Royal Academy (a few years ago) showed that the father’s talent with a brush was far superior to his offspring’s. William tackled more difficult subjects (realistic, three-dimensional objects, reflected light) compared to Ben (flat assortments of graphic shapes). Even the spare simplicity of William’s print works exhibit the talent of a man who had mastered his medium. Fame alone does not a great artist make.

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