The Hundred Jugs

WAG 2595


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'. 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 the height of the First World War 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'.