29. Canterbury Quad, by William Nicholson

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 11 March 2021
Dr Jennifer Johnson looks ahead to a sunny summer, like the one evoked by this balmy scene in Canterbury Quad
Canterbury Quad.png William Nicholson (1872-1949), Canterbury Quad, c.1902-1904, oil on canvas, 52.1 x 57.2 cm

This painting of Canterbury Quadrangle, bathed in golden afternoon light has something of an afternoon scene in a Venetian piazza about it – the quiet atmosphere and strolling figures as well as the emphasis upon light and shadow, which emphasizes the spaces behind the arches as it moves from overcast shadow to bright sunshine from left to right across the horizontal composition. In part, this piazza-like effect emerges from the undefined interior space of the quad. Today, we are used to the delineations of grass and paths, but here the close palette merges this space into the ochre sandstone of the architecture. It could be a hazy Venetian setting from Henry James’ novel The Wings of a Dove, if it wasn’t also so unmistakeably an Oxford quad.

Punctuated by the green of the garden, glimpsed – as now – through the far gate under the imposing bronze statue of Henrietta Maria by the French Huguenot sculptor, Hubert Le Sueur, the viewer is enclosed in the scene, standing in the rich purple of the foreground shadow that contrives to show the fourth wall of the quad, as if behind us. There are women in the quad, but all accompanied by men (it is decades before the admission of women to St John’s), which suggests that they are visitors, perhaps the wives of current fellows or visitors to  the college: we might conjecture that this is a weekend or vacation afternoon, or even the afternoon of a garden party or event.

William Nicholson himself fits this Edwardian atmosphere. Described by the National Portrait Gallery as ‘a distinguished and dandified Edwardian portrait painter, poster designer and painter of still lifes’, he was known for his immaculate attire, appearing to paint dressed in his customary white trousers and high collar (even when painting on the Sussex or Wiltshire downs) and clutching a folding chair.

Nicholson was also a book designer and illustrator, and the strong, simplified black lines of his lithographs for an alphabet book are perhaps the best known of all his works. But he was also a wide-ranging painter, and his still-lives have a concentrated focus upon the interrelation between objects that clearly influenced the highly abstract work of one of sons, the modernist painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). 

Between 1902-1904, whilst Nicholson was living in Woodstock, he made a series of studies of Oxford, including numerous images of the colleges. These became a series of watercolour, chalk and pen drawings, published in 1905 by the Stafford Gallery as two portfolios of lithographs, with descriptions by Arthur Waugh – the father of the novelist Evelyn Waugh. Amongst these is a study of the Canterbury Quad (see below), which informs the painting. However, in comparison to the hazy, still scene of the painting, Nicholson’s use of line has a dynamism that lies somewhere between the gothic drawings of the eighteenth-century Swiss painter and draughtsman Henry Fuseli and the twentieth-century artist, John Piper (discussed in an earlier blog). Like both these artists, Nicholson’s line is descriptive, animating the architectural detail of the quad such that it becomes as engaging a subject as the actual living figure moving beneath the arches.

The cross-hatching and use of a thick black wash turn again to the way in which light and shadow interplay across the ornate surface of the buildings. In this lithograph there is drama and also brevity, caused by the sense that lines have been applied with some speed – as if following the forms of the coats of arms and the capitols as fast as the eye traces them, securing them in this drama of sunlight and shade before it passes. This is typical of Nicholson’s illustrative style, and it is compelling – enchanting even. In the occasional daub of paint (such as the flecks of white that indicate light reflected on the glass window panes) and in the loosely painted purple shadow that dominates the foreground, there are vestiges of this in the painting. Like Nicholson’s 1903 painting, Morris Dancers at Blenheim Gate (see below), there is a pastoral element – the golden light and atemporality of the morris dance evoking a crepuscular, nostalgic vision. The brushwork and the close tonalities of these paintings also speak to the influence of the painter James Whistler (1834-1903), who encouraged Nicholson to concentrate further upon oil painting.

At a moment when we might begin to hope that there is an end in sight to the pandemic, maybe we can look forward to a summer with some echoes of Nicholson’s balmy afternoon scene in Canterbury Quad. 

William Nicholson

Dr Jennifer JohnsonDr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art