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Sir William Newzam Prior Nicholson
'And How to Play' - an illustration for The Pirate Twins
Black ink and watercolour over graphite, heightened with white on card
Bequeathed by Lillian Browse, 2005, received 2006

One evening on the sands
Mary found
the pirate twins - so -
she took them home
and bathed them
and fed them
on this
and the other
she taught them how to dress
what 'S' stands for
where to find Jamaica
and the Milky Way
how to dance
and how to play
but they didn't care
they bit their nails and sucked their thumbs
put things into the cat's milk - and even
played dominoes in bed - until
one fine day
they left a note and...
stole a boat
and sailed away
to sea
but they never forgot their home
and always came back
in time for
Mary's birthday
William Nicholson, The Pirate Twins, London: Faber and Faber, 1929

Nicholson trained as a painter, but also devoted a significant part of his career to printmaking and book illustration. His illustrations for children's books proved highly popular, notably those for Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) and his own book Clever Bill, published four years later. This is a study for one of twenty-eight illustrations that Nicholson designed for the sequel to the latter, The Pirate Twins, which also features the little girl Mary as one of the main protagonists. The idea for the twins came from a pair of stocking dolls that Nicholson's daughter, Nancy, had made as a teenager, from black socks that her father had bought in Paris, but never worn; she decorated them with leather belts, yellow button necklaces and gave them cutlasses made of card.

Nicholson made a point of surrounding himself with children - generally his grandchildren - when writing children's books. His jaunty illustrative style was strongly influenced by the Victorian artist, Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), whose own children's books placed increasing emphasis on the importance of the image in the overall narrative. Like Clever Bill, The Pirate Twins was published in a horizontal format, with very brief text (sometimes just one word) running on to accompany the images, a format which created a sequence that could be followed almost like a slide show. Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, was profoundly influenced by both Nicholson's books, describing them as, 'seemingly so simple they run through your fingers, you can't catch them fast enough'.

The Pirate Twins proved less popular than Clever Bill in the longer term (Nicholson himself described the colouring in the American edition, as 'poisonous'!), and changing perceptions of the racial stereotyping of the two black pirates for a time prevented the book from being republished.


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