The view is looking East across the old harbour in La Rochelle with the quay Cours des Dames (formerly Cours Wilson) in the foreground. In the middle distance the line of the Quai Carenage marks one side of the inner harbour, while on the skyline is the Quai Valin with its lighthouse (still active); the clump of trees to the left of the lighthouse also survive. The main body of the town lies to the left of the painting, while the Tour de la Chaine and the Tour St Nicholas, guarding the entrance to the harbour, are to the right.
William Nicholson and his companion, the novelist Marguerite Steen, first visited La Rochelle in late August 1938. Nicholson had always been fascinated by the town ever since he had acquired a copy of Jacques Callot's magnificent bird's eye view of the 1627-28 siege of La Rochelle. (For Callot's influence on the artist see S. Schwartz, William Nicholson, London and New Haven, 2004, pp. 46-50). Marguerite Steen relates that Nicholson was delighted to be able to identify their apartment building on the Cours Wilson (now Cours des Dames) on the Callot engraving. This was their home during their second visit - they returned in November 1938 and stayed until spring the following year. From the windows of their 5th floor flat Nicholson painted several views across the harbour, including some of the fishing boats from the enormous fishing fleet based in the port. The diversity of their colourful sails delighted him. As he wrote to his son Ben in an undated letter of early March 1939 'Harbour full of Sailing Fleet with sails from brightest blue to aggressive Red rust and peroxide blonde and pale flesh' (quoted in A. Nicholson (ed.), William Nicholson painter, London, 1996, p. 261).
Nicholson also executed some fine snowscapes in early 1939 when La Rochelle suffered an unusual spell of bitterly cold weather. Harbour in Snow, La Rochelle (Tate, London) shows the same view as La Rochelle, The Harbour and makes an interesting comparison. The latter work probably dates from after the snow had gone, in March 1939, about the time Nicholson was writing to his son Ben following a long silence. The air is heavy with warm moisture and there is a pellucid quality to the light suggesting the promise of spring. Nicholson's palette is pale pastel shades with thick impasto. It is a feature of the La Rochelle paintings that his handling of paint varies and he is happy to experiment.
We are very grateful to Patricia Reed for preparing the catalogue entry for lots 108 and 110.