Following William’s footsteps
Exhibition at The Grange Gallery, Rottingdean
Gliding, oil on board, 2017
The story of this exhibition begins with my great-grandfather, the painter William Nicholson. His books, the Pirate Twins, the Velveteen Rabbit and Clever Bill, were childhood favourites. I knew him from Winifred’s description and from his paintings. My father wrote a book about him and I really enjoyed the 2004 William Nicholson exhibition at the Royal Academy. I wanted to know more.
I went to visit The Grange where he lived, which was easy to do as it is now an art gallery. To my great delight they asked me to have an exhibition there.
I researched more about William and began to get to know my great grandfather. I looked at as many of his paintings as I could, and copied a few to try and understand how he worked. His incredibly modern poster designs (made with his brother-in-law James Pryde as the Beggerstaff Brothers) and his landscapes told me that he loved to simplify, to distil the essence of something to make a picture.
His very talented work as a portrait painter certainly paid the rent but what he chose to paint for himself was often much simpler than that. Some of his landscapes and still lives are so spare that they are almost abstract. Ben was not rebelling against his father but building on the solid foundations William had prepared.
I think that some of William’s best landscapes are those that he painted in Sussex during his time living in Rottingdean, so I set off to explore his countryside as inspiration for the show.
I travelled down from the north in my VW bus, which is a kind of travelling studio, and visited places that he liked to paint. Some looked just the same (I could even work out exactly where he was sitting); others were hard to find and some had changed so much over the century that they were completely new views.
The bus was great. It allowed me to paint whatever the weather. I could retreat inside if it rained, or more often because it was windy. One day I was right on top of the Downs in very William-ish kind of place and it was so windy that I was painting inside the bus. The wind reached into the open door and snatched my painting, taking it for a tumble down the hill. I raced after it and held it firmly till I could find the tape to stick it down and carry on!
The pictures in this exhibition are the result of this visit. Some were painted entirely in situ, others were started in Sussex and finished in my studio and some grew from the treasure of ideas and sketches that I brought home with me.
The Grange was home to William, Mabel and their four children. I was happy to discover more about Mabel who was a respected painter too, though overshadowed by William. She often painted her children and these pictures give a good idea of the vibrancy of their creative family home. It is definitely time for her to step into the light.
During my Sussex adventure I found many interesting paths, some literally that William had walked with his paintbox over his shoulder; some simply William-like and others diversions of my own as I followed inspiration across the downs. I found a paintbox of my own and felt the challenge of painting on a canvas board small enough to fit in the box. William used to say that his studio was wherever his paintbox was. I was happy that there were also places I could go with my bus and have big paper and canvas to work on.
I met people who influenced where I went and inspired me in other ways. I was happy to come across the work of local painter Harold Mockford whose work, I feel, speaks of the place so strongly. I began to get a taste of why William and Mabel liked this place so much and I am delighted to share some of this in the exhibition in their home.