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Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan

Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan
oil on canvas-board
13 ¼ x 10 7/8 in. (33.7 x 27.6 cm.)
Painted in 1909.
Acquired directly from the artist by A. Arnold Hannay, and by descent.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 25 July 1934, lot 62, as 'Still-life: A Mug etc.'.
with T.W. Spurr, Bradford, where purchased in the mid-1930s, and by descent.
P. Reed, William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonnée of the Oil Paintings, London, 2011, p. 164, no. 170, illustrated.

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Angus Granlund
Angus Granlund Modern British & Irish Art

Lot Essay

Painted in 1909, Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan demonstrates the extraordinary qualities of Sir William Nicholson’s still life paintings from the period before the First World War. The composition is elegant and minimalist, assembled by just two objects: a pink Staffordshire lustre mug from the 1820s, and a black and white fan whose pink ribbon curls around the mug. They are set against a shadowy backdrop, adding drama and atmosphere to this seemingly simple still life. At first, the composition appears to be spontaneous and informal, but on closer examination it becomes apparent how controlled it is, resulting in a balanced and harmonious interplay of objects and light.

This painting anticipates Nicholson’s seminal still life of 1911, The Lustre Bowl with Green Peas, now in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Similarly to the composition of Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan, Nicholson positions the still life objects – the glimmering lustre bowl and the pile of delicate peas – at a diagonal across from each other, lit by a subtle light source which highlights the objects and sets them in shadow against the dark background.

Nicholson’s use of the lustre mug here enables him to display his considerable technical abilities in depicting the reflective nature of its material. He captures the mug’s gleaming surface deftly and confidently, his fluid impasto pigments emphasising its rich polished material. He positions the still life objects upon a highly reflective table top, reinforcing the mug’s lustrous texture. In contrast, the fabrics of the fan and ribbon are soft and delicate, yet the objects also relate to one another, the pink of the ribbon echoed by the pink of the mug.

There are interesting juxtapositions in Nicholson’s choice and treatment of the still life objects in Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan. In part the painting is indebted to the traditions and memories of the past: the Staffordshire mug, dating to the 1820s, commemorates Queen Caroline, wife of George IV; and the detail and precision of Nicholson’s technique acknowledges the legacy of the 17th Century Dutch painters, as well as the important influence that Velázquez had upon his style. Yet Nicholson’s depiction of the chip in the mug’s rim demonstrates his commitment to realism, and the minimalist backdrop and composition are ‘a rejection of specificity and an advance towards abstraction’ (P. Reed, William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonnée of the Oil Paintings, London, 2011, p. 164). While being firmly embedded within the tradition of still life painting, this picture also demonstrates Nicholson’s unique approach to the genre, which hints at a minimalist approach that will be adopted by the subsequent generation of modernist painters – expressly Nicholson’s son, Ben.

Still life: Pink Lustre Mug and Fan is presented in its original gilt-gesso, ripple-moulded Chenil frame; a rare survival for works of this period by William Nicholson. Charles Chenil & Co. Ltd had opened in Chelsea in 1906 and was run by Jack Knewstub, brother-in-law to two of Nicholson’s contemporaries, William Rothenstein and William Orpen: the business was run as an art gallery and dealership and as a frame maker and colourman supplying the needs of artists of the day. Patricia Reed records, ‘The painting has a handsome contemporary frame bearing the label Chas. Chenil & Co. Ltd’ (P. Reed, op. cit., p. 164).

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

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