About the artwork
William Nicholson's work and reputation as an artist has been somewhat overshadowed by that of his son, Ben Nicholson (1894 -1982). Ben became one of the pioneer's of abstract art in Britain in the 20th century. William Nicholson himself was born in Newark-on-Trent in 1872, the son of a well-to-do industrialist. From quite early on he showed artistic leanings. He eventually persuaded his parents to allow him to enrol as a student at the art school run by the painter, Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914) in London.
There he met his fellow artists, Mabel and James Pryde - later to become his wife and brother-in-law. At eighteen, he travelled to France to study at the renowned Academie Julian, one of the major art teaching studios in Paris. However, he soon returned to his own small studio in Newark. Formal instruction had helped him a little. More important was the experience of copying paintings by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), the Spanish artist, by which he felt 'You get in touch with the very vision of the painter'. His love of Velazquez was shared by his other two great artistic influences, the American, James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) and the French artist, Edouard Manet (1832-1883).
Nicholson began his artistic career with poster design and woodcut illustration. He returned to painting after 1900. He became a successful portraitist and landscape painter.
In this rather untypical work, traditional still-life painting is transformed into something both whimsical and yet disturbing. Ropes and cloths drape down from the ceiling. The jugs - in earthenware, stoneware, china and glass - are densely grouped in a seemingly random arrangement. Their surfaces glint and gleam against the more sombre background. The scene is both homely and yet chaotic. Some jugs are stacked precariously on top of each other, others hold the artist's brushes. In the foreground, a contrasting group of about half a dozen jugs provides a strong focal point. A vivid turquoise jug stands next to two decorated ones. One is lying on its side with its opening towards the viewer. To the left stands a plain brown stoneware jug of swelling form. Behind that, adding a touch of gentle humour to the scene is the cat that has got the cream! Here, another jug lies on its side spilling its milky contents across the surface. Beside it, a tabby cat greedily laps up the pool of milk.
The jugs, mainly English pottery and some china ones, were an important part of Nicholson's life. They adorned the surroundings in which he lived. His son, Ben, later admitted, 'But of course I owe a lot to my father - especially his poetic ideal and his still-life theme. That didn't come from Cubism as some people think, but from my father - not only from what he did as a painter, but from the beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and goblets…. which he collected. Having those things throughout the house was an unforgettable early experience for me'. (Sunday Times, 26th April 1963).
'The Hundred Jugs' demonstrates Nicholson's pleasure in ordinary things. It remains one of the artist's best-known and well-loved paintings. It stands as a testament to his skill with paint and brush. 'Behind his personality' his son once wrote, 'lay a very simple, direct painterly approach'.
In 1893 Nicholson married Mabel Pryde, who he had met at art school in London. At first the couple lived on a small allowance from the Nicholson family. Under the rather curious name of J & W Beggarstaff, Nicholson and his brother-in-law, James Pryde worked together on a series of posters. Their strong and simple designs with stencilled colours, paper cut-outs and collage, brought a new dimension to British poster art. At the first important international exhibition of posters held at the Royal Aquarium in 1892 their work attracted a considerable amount of attention. In spite of this, it seems that the commercial world was not quite ready for their 'avant-garde' work. Soon after, following the birth of Ben, his first child, in 1894, Nicholson found himself searching for more lucrative ventures.
Having already become proficient in wood engraving as a student in Newark, Nicholson began to concentrate on colour woodcuts. This provided him with another strand to his career, but as an illustrator, rather than a painter. Through the interventions of Whistler, Nicholson was contracted by the publishers, Heinemann, to produce a series of woodcut illustrations. Between 1897 and 1900 he illustrated numerous books on such subjects as 'An Alphabet' and 'Portraits'. His most famous woodcut illustration - a portrait of Queen Victoria for W.E. Henley's 'New Review' - became one of the most widely known images of the monarch. By 1900 his success culminated in him being awarded a gold medal, at the age of twenty-eight, for his woodcuts at the Paris Exposition Universalle.
The year 1900 was also a turning point in other ways. It was around this time that Nicholson returned more wholeheartedly to painting. Whistler's encouragement again was crucial. Nicholson started to show at the International Society Exhibitions, which were founded and presided over by Whistler. With his family increasing in size and in order to maintain his standard of living, Nicholson turned to portraiture as a means of making a living. The years 1914 and 1918 were highly productive and he found himself in great demand as a portrait painter. At the same time, he also continued to develop as a landscape artist. Holidays and weekends spent at his Sussex house enabled him to paint the views of the surrounding countryside and to try to capture the beauty of the Downs in his work. These are regarded as 'tonal' paintings, following in the footsteps of his 'heroes' Velazquez and Whistler. For Nicholson, tone was more important than colour. He is quoted as saying, 'It is a difficult subject to discuss - the very term 'tone' is excessively difficult to define. It isn't colour. It is quality in common between colours. Tone exists when by reason of this common quality everything in your picture sings in harmony.'
His still-life paintings have a similar tonal quality and assurance. It was during this period, when the First World War was at its height, that he painted 'The Hundred Jugs'. It is the Walker's only painting by Nicholson and was purchased in 1920 from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. In contrast to more conventional still-life arrangements depicting a single jug with flowers, of which Nicholson painted many, 'The Hundred Jugs' displays a profusion of jugs set against a subdued background in tones of brown and ochre. The painting is believed to be the result of a challenge between father, William Nicholson, and son. Nicholson senior, whilst looking at one of his son's works showing a single jug, commented, 'but why one jug?' to which his son, Ben, replied 'well, why don't you paint a hundred?' Here we see the result - Nicholson's still-life 'tour de force'.