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    Sale 7637

    20th Century British Art

    12 December 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 34

    Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949)

    Still Life, Apples and Knives

    Price Realised  


    Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949)
    Still Life, Apples and Knives
    oil on canvas-board
    14 x 18 in. (35.5 x 45.8 cm.)
    Painted in 1932.

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    This was one of the most recent of Nicholson's paintings included in the major retrospective exhibition of his works that toured England and Northern Ireland during 1933 and 1934. When shown in his home town of Newark, one of the local papers, The Newark Herald was able to give readers a rare insight into the artist's working methods, 'It is said that a lady once approached Mr Nicholson to give her a lesson in painting. "I never give lessons," was the artist's reply, adding, however that if she went to the studio he would show her how to paint. Arriving at the studio it was seen that on the table were a dish of apples, some knives, and letters. Taking his brushes Mr Nicholson set to work and in 25 minutes had produced Apples and Knives. "That is how to paint" he said to the lady. At least that is how the story goes'.

    This refreshing note of scepticism as to the accuracy of its own stories is well merited, both with regards to time and to the assertion that Nicholson never gave lessons. Winston Churchill was his most celebrated pupil, while the potter Bernard Leach recalled a rare appearance at the London School of Art in Kensington where Nicholson was an accredited member of staff in 1908, 'Simplify!' was all he said.
    These objects however, might well have been found in the artist's studio-home in Apple Tree Yard: three knives, a steel for sharpening them, a window envelope with what look ominously like bills, and a fruit bowl containing two apples with the ivory handles of a pair of fruit knives visible behind. Part of the artist's skill lies in the arrangement of the objects: the circles of the apples within the larger radius of the bowl, the arc of the shadow linking the two areas of paper, and then the larger arc of the papers and envelope facilitated by the tilted picture plane. These radiating curves, which could be read as a spiral leaving the picture lower left, are threatened by the diagonal of a trio of knives in a line with the edge of the bowl where it touches the dark void behind. The apex of the angle formed by the outer knife and the truncated steel is where the paper and the shadow of the bowl meet. The existence of the world outside the picture space is indicated by the truncated steel right and the corner of the bill left; (incidentally, a line can be drawn between the upper edge of the bill and the lower edge of the steel which is exactly parallel with the lower edge of the canvas). The artist has restricted his palette: the red underpainting is visible and the paint is deftly laid on in warm creamy tones with notes of yellow and green.

    The unusual appearance of the window envelope in a still life might lead one to think that they had only recently been invented. However they had been widely in use in Europe for commercial correspondence since the early 1900s; the 'outlook envelope' having been patented by Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in 1902; of course they are rarely preserved unless some great idea takes shape on the back of one. If the papers are indeed bills, it is tempting to interpret the trio of dark knives as the artist's creditors.

    We are very grateful to Patricia Reed for preparing this catalogue entry.

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    with Beaux Arts Gallery, London.
    with Roland, Browse & Delbanco, London.


    L. Browse, William Nicholson, London, 1956, p. 92, no. 369.
    The Newark Herald, 6 October 1934, p. 7.


    Nottingham, Museum and Art Gallery, William Nicholson Retrospective Exhibition, March - April 1933, no. 5.
    London, Beaux Arts Gallery, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, May - June 1933, no. 2.
    Scarborough, Public Library, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, August - September 1933, no. 37.
    Folkestone, Public Art Gallery, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, October - November, no. 25.
    Belfast, Museum and Art Gallery, Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Prints by William Nicholson, January - February 1934, no. 12.
    Newark, Municipal Museum, Exhibition of Paintings by William Nicholson, September - October 1934, no. 37.
    London, Beaux Arts Gallery, Summer Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Eminent Modern French and English Artists, July - August 1939, no. 52.