Though they were published over a century ago, there is something irrefutably modern about William Nicholson’s London Types woodcuts. In its two-tone minimalism of black and brown, enlivened by pops of Warholian colour, Nicholson’s portfolio of London characters anticipated even the boldest of contemporary graphics with an approach to design that pulled no punches. Little wonder, then, that by the turn of the century, and at the age of just twenty-six, he was touted as Britain’s greatest living printmaker.
Alongside his brother-in-law James Pryde, Nicholson had cut his teeth as one half of the poster makers J. & W. Beggarstaff. Though only active for a little under five years, the Beggarstaff duo brought upheaval to the London advertising scene with daringly simple, reductive posters in heavy black line. Drawing upon the wealth of graphic images produced by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Cherét’s Maîtres de l’Affiche, Nicholson’s stark designs offered a vigorous new alternative to the brushed colour of his Parisian contemporaries. Unrelentingly austere, they proved too much for most firms and a lack of sales soon saw the company disbanded.
Though the Beggarstaff experiment had brought Nicholson a certain level of notoriety, it was in his own woodcuts that he found his first commercial success. A portrait of Queen Victoria, her immense imperial presence conveyed in an audaciously abstract mass of black, became hugely popular and propelled the young artist into the limelight. Before long, Nicholson was producing whole suites of prints – an illustrated alphabet, sports almanac, and Square Book of Animals – in his now ubiquitous style.
Of these many projects, London Types was arguably his most accomplished. A collection of thirteen portraits of quintessential London locals, Nicholson’s great achievement was in capturing the personalities of each subject, only to transform their peculiarities into a paradigm of city life. Sanford Schwartz, Nicholson’s foremost biographer, explains: ‘With images such as the smouldering and fatigued Bus Driver, the insidious Hawker, the alluring, appraising, olympian Lady – clearly a prostitute – and the oddly sensual Newsboy, Nicholson takes us into an authentic modern milieu…we are encountering not just London then but any pulsing metropolis now, by turns sooty and gleamingly bright, threatening and exhilarating, humiliating and glamorous.’
Arrestingly direct in his interpretation, Nicholson demonstrated across his various ‘types’ an expert handling of light, shape, and space. Each muscular portrait, sparingly detailed, is set off against great swathes of black and white, a kind of extreme chiaroscuro in which an atmosphere of smog, of shadows cast by the greasy yellow light of London’s street lamps, is economically expressed in black ink on tan paper; an extraordinary feat of graphic design.
Combining photographic directness and technically masterful printmaking, Nicholson’s London comes alive in this suite. Few other artists, so early in their careers, can have described with such originality the spirit of ‘The Big Smoke’.