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Sir William Nicholson 1872-1949
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Sixteen designs for playing cards
Graphite, gouache and white heightening on card, each 5 3/8 x 4 inches / 13.5 x 10 cm.
Provenance: Possibly the artist’s daughter Nancy; Private collection, France since circa 1970-75
Literature: Colin Campbell, William Nicholson: The Graphic Work, 1992,
In the summer of 1898, the English painter William Nicholson left London for Oxfordshire, where he leased a house in the village of Woodstock. 'Chaucer's House', formerly the home of the artist's maternal grandparents, was an attractive grey stone building situated directly opposite the great gates of Sir John Vanbrugh's imposing Blenheim Palace. It had a view of Blenheim Park on one side, and looked out over the wide valley that cradles the Banbury Road on the other. It was a peaceful spot, and the novelist Marguerite Steen, Nicholson's companion during his later years, recalled that William felt more truly at home there than he did in any of the other houses in which he lived during the course of his life. He was now better off; he did not have to work to commission to the same extent as he had done in the past; and, as always, when he found himself in happy surroundings, 'the creative spirit was flaming [and] he was working on a dozen things at once...,1
The works that survive from the years between c 1900 and Nicholson's return to London in 1904 confirm what Steen says about the productivity of the young artist's Woodstock period. Nicholson was happiest when painting landscapes and still-lifes, but in order to buy the time he needed to indulge his inclinations as a painter he had to produce a formal portrait in oils from time to time, and early on during his years at Woodstock he began to make his mark in that line with likenesses of two men of letters, W.E.Henley (1900; London, Tate Gallery) and Max Beerbohm (1901; London, National Portrait Gallery). It was at Woodstock, too, that three major projects were conceived and executed: sixteen pen and watercolour drawings of characters from fiction, later reproduced in the form of lithographs as Characters of Romance, (October 1900); twenty-four watercolour drawings of historic Oxford buildings (published as lithographic facsimiles in Oxford, 1905); and a group of designs for playing-cards that Steen describes in her biography of Nicholson as 'Kings, queens and knaves ... drawn from historical characters of England.'2 The existence of the last-named project has long been known from references in Steen and from a handful of designs, mostly duplicates, that now belong to the William Nicholson Trust3. However, a set of designs for court cards, the only known complete set, has recently come to light, making it possible to assess the importance of this unique project for the first time.
William Nicholson (1872-1949) was already a well-known artist by the time of his arrival at Woodstock in 1898. Born in Newark-upon-Trent, Nottinghamshire, the son of a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, he studied at Hubert Herkomer's art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and at the Academie Julian in Paris. After moving to London in late 1895 or early 1896, he collaborated with his brother-in-law James Pryde (1866-1941) on designs for posters.4 'J.& W.Beggarstaff', as the duo called themselves, excited some interest among poster collectors; but, with the exception of designs for Harper's Magazine, Rowntree's Elect Cocoa and one or two other products, they had little commercial success and it was not long before Nicholson decided to branch out on his own as a print-maker.
Having noticed that the market in commemorative prints was strong, Nicholson mastered the technique of engraving boxwood in a bold 'woodcut' style and produced a portrait of the Prince of Wales's Derby-winner Persimmon that caught the eye of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).5 Persimmon was followed by a woodcut of Admiral Lord Nelson (a celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar) and a Jubilee cut of Queen Victoria. The latter, which shows the ageing monarch promenading with a Skye terrier, was published in the June 1897 issue of the New Review and made Nicholson a household name overnight. On Whistler's recommendation, the publisher William Heinemann (1863-1920) commissioned two portfolios of woodcuts from the young artist: An Alphabet and An Almanac of Twelve Sports (published in 1897 but post-dated 1898). Both these publications made money, but Nicholson was now impatient to establish himself as a painter, and if it had not been for news that Chaucer's House would shortly become vacant his printmaking activities would probably have ended in 1897.
In order to raise the money he needed to fund his move to Woodstock, Nicholson signed a contract with Heinemann for London Types, a portfolio of twelve cuts published in London, New York and Paris in November 1898. The advance he received on royalties expected from this publication was not in itself sufficient to cover the expenses of his move, and Nicholson followed up the signing of that contract by negotiating advances totaling a further £300 on account of other, as yet unspecified, projects. Nicholson was expected to clear this debt over the next few years by providing Heinemann with two portfolios of printed portraits and, when the need arose, designs for the covers of his publisher's six-shilling novels. The first of the two portfolios, Twelve Portraits, was published in London, New York and Paris in September 1899. The second, Twelve Portraits (second series), eventually appeared in London and New York in November 1902. These two sets consolidated the reputation as a portraitist that the Queen Victoria had brought Nicholson in 1897. The second set, on which the artist worked spasmodically and with little enthusiasm between early 1901 and June 1902, is less interesting than the first, but it is the more important of the two in the present context. Twelve Portraits (second series) was in hand when Nicholson began his designs for playing cards, and it thus forms the background against which the latter should be seen.
Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, and Nicholson, just back from America, where he had been making drawings of Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and others for Harper's Weekly, went to London on 2nd February to watch the funeral procession. The first series of Twelve Portraits had by now been in circulation for over a year, and shortly after Victoria's funeral Heinemann launched his plans for a second series by purchasing the rights to a woodcut portrait by Nicholson of the German emperor, Wilhelm II, which had originally appeared in Black and White magazine. In July 1901, Heinemann sent Nicholson a list of the other individuals he wished to see portrayed in this new series. The topicality of the set was to be ensured by the presence of Lord Kitchener, who had recently succeeded Lord Roberts as Commander-in-chief
Marguerite Steen relates that, after his return from America, Nicholson would cycle to Oxford, eight miles away, where he would work during the day on his watercolours of the city's historic architecture. It was during the evenings, Steen says, that William turned his attention to another aspect of the past: his designs for playing cards7.
Steen's reference to Nicholson's designs for cards as a 'labour of love'8 may be true of the later stages of work on this project, but William was nothing if not practical, and it is likely that the project was at least begun, as the artist's designs for posters and his commemorative prints had been begun, in a speculative spirit. At this stage of his career Nicholson had no time for 'labours of love'. He did not embark upon time -consuming projects if they had no commercial potential, and in the case of his designs for cards we can assume that he hoped to sell his work to a manufacturer. We have no way of knowing which firm he had in mind, but an almost indecipherable reference to 'g ... all' on a hand-written list of subjects for this series, that was made many years later, points to Charles Goodall & Sons of London, the country's leading playing-card manufacturer in the early years of the twentieth century.9
It would be difficult to over-estimate the popularity of card games during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Scores of playing-card manufacturers flourished during these years. Countless decks of cards were issued; Charles Goodall's annual production amounted to over two million packs. It is safe to say that, within the domestic environments of the middle and upper classes, card games were enjoyed by virtually everyone. Nicholson's London haunt, the Savile Club in Piccadilly, had its own Card room.10
Many commemorative packs of cards were manufactured during the nineteenth century, beginning with the Royal Historical Game of Cards, a pack depicting monarchs from William I to Victoria that was published at the time of the latter's accession to the throne in 1837. As well as accessions, such packs commemorated royal marriages and jubilees. Nicholson's designs have a number of features in common with a deck issued by Charles Goodall in 1897, the year of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. On occasion, artists were invited to participate in competitions for new designs, and it is very likely that it was a competition that first prompted Nicholson to try his hand at work of this kind. The date of his designs, which must have been begun not long after Victoria's death, suggests that the manufacturers concerned planned to commemorate the forthcoming coronation of the new King. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, Edward VII does not appear among Nicholson's designs for court cards. What, then, was the pretext for the artist's designs?
While the historical figures portrayed in Nicholson's court card designs seem, at first glance, to have been chosen at random, closer inspection reveals a related iconography. The King of Spades (Henry VIII) provides the key to the theme of the pack, for Spades is the highest suit in a deck of cards, and Henry VIII is the earliest of the monarchs represented. Henry's historical importance lies, of course, in the fact that he broke from Rome, thereby initiating the English Reformation, and when we look at Nicholson's other figures, knaves as well as kings and queens, we find that they all played a role of one kind or another in the turbulent history of relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Britain. For example, King James I and VI, the King of Diamonds, was responsible for the publication of the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible (1611); King Charles II, the King of Hearts, was a Catholic but promised religious toleration in the Declaration of Breda of 1660; while King George IV, the King of Clubs, denounced Catholic emancipation but was eventually obliged to grant Royal Assent to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. It is a characteristic of Nicholson's work on earlier projects, London Types, for example, that more ideas for subjects were explored than were ultimately used, and the absence of discarded ideas in the case of his designs for cards reinforces the probability that, in a pack that appears to survey the history of the English Reformation, the artist was working to a manufacturer's brief, rather than developing a concept of his own.
Relations between Protestants and Catholics were strained between Queen Victoria's death in January 1901 and Edward VII's coronation in August 1902, for the prospect of Edward's enthronement raised, once again, the thorny problem of the Coronation Oath.
Tradition demanded that a new sovereign must swear to 'maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship and discipline and government thereof, as by law established.' Following this promise to uphold Protestantism, the new monarch would be presented with a copy of the King James Bible. However, Edward made it clear, even before his mother died, that he was against swearing an Oath that, after four hundred years or so of religious strife, was now widely regarded as insulting to Catholics, Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster described it as a 'national crime', and indeed to several other branches of Christendom as well. But Edward's protests were of no avail. Although the controversy they caused finally brought about the amendment of the Oath, this did not happen until 1910, and he himself was forced by pressure from anti-Catholic factions within the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, and the mainstream Protestant Churches, to comply with custom by swearing the controversial Oath in the House of Lords after his Coronation. Conscious of the presence of the English Catholic nobility whose ancestors had suffered for their beliefs over the centuries, he did this, by way of public protest, sotto voce, a stand that was against the spirit of the Coronation Oath Act, which requires the Oath to be read audibly.
It may well be that Nicholson felt close to the subject matter of this project in a geographical sense for Queen Mary I had had her half-sister Elizabeth, later
While some of Nicholson's contemporaries might have regarded designing playing cards as a task unworthy of a painter, Nicholson himself had some knowledge of the history of printmaking and he must have been aware that artists have been designing cards since the sixteenth century. In any case, he relished the technical challenge that the project in hand presented. He worked on small, rectangular pieces of card using his best sable brushes in the many areas where intricate detail was required. The pinholes visible in the corners of some of the cards are probably evidence of the use of tracing paper that enabled him to match the two ends of his double-ended designs exactly13. Inevitably, mistakes occurred as work progressed. The Knave of Clubs, Titus Oates, in which the part of the design he wished to change was covered with paper, on which the image could be re-drawn, shows one of his methods of dealing with errors.
It is likely that paintings and prints seen in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and perhaps, in some instances, in reproductions in books, formed the starting points for Nicholson's kings, queens and knaves. His Knave of Spades, Guy Fawkes, for example, is based on one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, not Fawkes, in a line engraving by the German artist Heinrich Ulrich, c 1572-1621. However, Nicholson's transformations of his sources into his own distinctive idiom are so complete, as the borrowing from Ulrich shows, that it is usually difficult to trace the origins of his images.
Nicholson eschewed the formalised, geometrical shapes of the classic court card designs that first appeared in the 1860s, but something of the two-dimensional character of traditional designs survives in his King of Spades, Henry VIII. As for the artist's respect for the pictorial traditions that are associated with playing cards, this is evident in a number of his designs. For example, the traditional name for the Queen of Clubs is the 'Flower Queen', and Nicholson's Mary Queen of Scots is shown carrying the bloom that gave rise to this term. Likewise, the Queen of Spades used to be referred to as 'the Black Lady', and Nicholson's grim-looking Mary Tudor, who has just ordered the burning of heretics, fits this designation well. But perhaps the most interesting example of Nicholson's knowledge of the pictorial traditions of English playing-cards is provided by the Knave of Hearts, identified here as David Rizzio. The traditional meaning of the word 'knave' is a servant, often a dishonest one. But a 'knave of hearts' can also mean 'a flirt', and this appears to be the meaning that Nicholson had in mind, for the lips of this figure, seen in profile, assume the shape of a heart. This witty use of a device employed in nineteenth-century 'transformation' packs, in which the emblems of the different suits are incorporated into the images, could not be more appropriate in a portrait of the alleged lover of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Nicholson's aces have no obvious thematic connection with the subject matter of his court cards, and only the slightest of connections with each other. It may therefore be the case that here, at any rate, the artist was allowed to please himself, and, this being the case, his imagery was dictated by little more than the whim of the moment. Having said that, it may be worth mentioning in passing that the most important of these four cards, the Ace of Spades, is traditionally known as 'the Death card', and Nicholson's representation of the final moments of a stag in the background of his design for this card may allude to this symbolism. What is interesting is Nicholson's decision to refer to death through the image of a stag hunt, for a stag is widely regarded as a symbol of cycles in which death is followed by regeneration and growth. This symbolism, which of course derives from the annual shedding of the creature's antlers, is shared because of the resemblance of antlers to branches, with the arbor vitae, the deciduous Tree of Life that we see in the foreground of Nicholson's design. The Ace of Spades traditionally regarded as the 'Death Card', is thus, in Nicholson's hands, a symbol of death followed by renewal. Perhaps the artist regarded this as a fitting symbol with which to introduce a gallery of portraits of English monarchs.15
After waiting ten months for Nicholson to complete the outstanding cuts for his second series of Twelve Portraits, Heinemann finally ran out of patience. On 9 May 1902 he wrote to the artist, asking him to finish all the portraits by the last week of June. The matter was urgent, for the topicality of the portraits he had proposed could not be guaranteed indefinitely. Pope Leo XIII had not long to live; Kitchener's efforts in South Africa had by now brought the second Boer War to an end, the Peace was signed on 31 May, and the Coronation of the new King would soon be over. In the event, the date scheduled for the coronation, 26 June, was subsequently changed, on account of Edward's appendicitis, to 9 August. Nicholson had to drop everything, including his designs for playing cards, and jump to his creditor's bidding.
It is at this point that we become aware of the importance of Nicholson's playing-card designs for his development as a portraitist. As already noted, early designs such as the Queen of Clubs, Mary, Queen of Scots, reflect something of the simplified style of the printed portraits of 1900 and 1901. However, as one would expect of an artist who had begun to realise that using a brush was a much quicker and easier method of making a portrait than using a graver, Nicholson soon abandoned the 'woodcut' style that gives his printed portraits their somewhat rigid, posed appearance. He now began to understand how hands could be exploited to bring grace and movement to a portrait; and how, together with costume and accessories, they can complement the personality of a sitter and, at the same time, add character and interest to an image. The extent to which designing playing cards helped Nicholson, in this way, to progress from the 'effigies' of his print-making days to a more sophisticated approach to portraiture can be seen in the Queen Alexandra that he engraved for his second series of Twelve Portraits. In this portrait, Nicholson revised his initial conception by adding a strip of paper bearing a brushed drawing of a King Charles spaniel and a pair of elegantly gloved hands to the lower edge of a proof taken from the woodblock.16 However, the fruits of Nicholson's work on portraits of men and women from English history are mainly to found in his painted portraits, notably the opulent, modish portrait of actress and singer Marie Tempest seated with one of the Duchess of Marlborough's Blenheim spaniels from 1903 (London, National Portrait Gallery).17
Nicholson's designs for playing cards were probably all completed by June 1903, when a number of them were displayed alongside watercolours and oil paintings at an exhibition ofthe artist's recent work at the Strafford Gallery in Old Bond Street. But the project was close to his heart and it is no surprise to find he was still thinking about it in the 1930s. 'I'm finishing my cards,' he wrote in 1938, adding, in a reference to Charles II, 'What a patient sitter he was'18. In fact, Sir William, as he had by then become, was not so much finishing his designs for playing cards as contemplating revisions to their subject matter. Edward VIII had abdicated by the end of 1936, and his brother Albert, George VI, was crowned the following year. The accession of the latter prompted Nicholson to replace George IV, his King of Clubs with George VI, and make the new King's Queen Consort, Elizabeth, the Queen of Hearts in place of Victoria, who was now relegated to the Queen of Diamonds.19
Nicholson's decision to shuffle his cards in order to accommodate recent historical events appears to have arisen out of a happy coincidence. Popular legend has it that the Queen of Hearts, as depicted in old decks, was based on images of Elizabeth of York, Queen Consort of King Henry VII, and Nicholson could hardly have failed to make a connection between this fact and the lineage of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a descendant of Henry VII who became Duchess of York on her marriage to the future George VI in 1923. However, the revisions Nicholson planned never got any further than one or two sketches of the new sovereign20. Perhaps it was just as well, for the changes Sir William had in mind would have involved dropping one of his finest portraits, that of Queen Elizabeth I, and abandoning the Reformation theme that plays such an important part in uniting these designs.
Like William Hogarth (1697-1764), a painter whom he greatly admired, Nicholson believed that true artists pay no attention to conventional distinctions between fine and applied art. This credo is reflected, in work from the Woodstock period, in the way that he gave as much thought to a bookplate or a signboard outside a public house as he did to his paintings on canvas21. The sixteen designs for playing cards discussed above reflect the same philosophy. The amount of time that Nicholson devoted to these works and the fact that he chose to exhibit them alongside his oil paintings show very clearly that their small size and the humble art form to which they belong was, to him, irrelevant. Today, these kings, queens and knaves have acquired additional significance, over and above their importance as works of art, as social documents. As art-historical documents, they are of course even more interesting, for they tell us a great deal about the artist, his wit, his fastidious attention to sartorial detail, and his vision of history as theatre. No less important are the insights they provide into Nicholson's development as an artist, for they form a bridge between his clever but immature commemorative prints and the first masterpiece of Edwardian portraiture. The latter, the wonderful Marie Tempest, is inconceivable without the discipline of the series of portraits of historical figures to which Nicholson submitted himself between 1901 and 1903.
Colin Campbell, April 2011
Notes on the subject-matter of individual designs
Ace of Spades
King of Spades
Mary I (1516-58), daughter of Henry VIII, and Queen of England and Ireland from 1553 until 1558. Mary re-established Roman Catholicism in England. She repealed her younger half-brother Edward VI's Protestant legislation, and in 1554 the heresy laws were re-introduced, resulting in the burning by 'Bloody Mary' of almost 300 Protestants at the stake. Nicholson depicts the execution of Protestants in the background of his portrait.
Knave of Spades
Ace of Diamonds
Queen of Diamonds
Knave of Diamonds
Ace of Hearts
King of Hearts
Queen of Hearts
Knave of Hearts
Ace of Clubs
A victorious army marches, banners waving, through a tall triumphal arch. The arch, which is surmounted by a triumphal car drawn by six horses, is flanked by poplar trees. In 1938, Nicholson described the theme of this design as 'Fighting' (Campbell, op. cit., p.169)
King of Clubs
Queen of Clubs
Knave of Clubs
Colin Campbell, April 2011