Nicholson was an exceptionally gifted painter of still-life. From his earliest years as a painter he developed an innate ability to combine simple - sometimes even mundane - objects and forms to create immensely satisfying compositions which were at once studies in light, texture and the physicality of paint. In this way, more than any other British painter of his generation, he made an astonishing artistic virtue of considered understatement.
This one of his last still-lifes, was painted in oils on panel at Bretton Park in West Yorkshire, where Nicholson spent the winter months of 1939 working on a portrait of Lord Allendale. In a letter to his daughter the following year, Nicholson recorded that it was painted, ‘with an urge’, during one - long - overnight session ‘after a perfect dinner (O! the wine)!’
Under the yellow glow of an oil lamp, which intensifies the depth of cast shadow, Nicholson represents the painter’s materials and equipment: notebooks, ink bottle and sealing wax - and gives the soft pink begonia flowers the full warmth and resonance that survivor-indoor blooms assume in the bleak winter months.
The first owner of this painting, the popular novelist and dramatist Marguerite Steen, was Nicholson’s companion in the last two decades of his life. It subsequently belonged to Lillian Browse, who expressed a wish that it should enter the Fitzwilliam’s collections.
Educated in South Africa, Lillian Browse returned to London in the 1920s with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer. Instead, she began to work for the Leger Galleries, an art dealership in London. In 1945 she joined two other art dealers to set up a new gallery, Roland, Browse & Delbanco, in Cork Street (at the time, Browse later wrote, a ‘haunt for prostitutes’!) When this business dissolved in 1977 she became a partner in a new gallery, Browse & Darby, in the same street. Affectionately known as ‘The Duchess of Cork Street’ - a title she gave to her autobiography - Browse pioneered the study of important French and English artists such as Degas, Rodin, Sickert, Barbara Hepworth, Augustus John and William Nicholson, a catalogue raisonné of whose work she published in 1956.
Browse came to know many of the leading painters and sculptors of her generation in both France and England, among whom Stanley Spencer, Harold Gilman, Christopher Nevinson, James Pryde, Jack Yeats, Moise Kisling, Othon Friesz and Mané Katz. But, of all the painters she came to know, she reminisced in 1985, ‘the man I really loved was William Nicholson.’ The memory of his ‘delightful courtesy and charm’ during their first meeting at his Apple Tree Studio in the 1930s left a lasting impression, and - despite the considerable difference in their age (34 years) - they became ‘devoted friends.’ She particularly admired this painting and the ‘controlled freedom’ of Nicholson’s paint handling, which she felt showed the touch ‘not of a virtuoso, but of a master.’
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estate of the late Mrs Sidney Lines (Lillian Browse C.B.E.) and allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum 2007, PD.1-2007
Acquisition date: 2007