Nicholl was born in Belfast and served as an apprentice to the printer F.D. Finlay before studying in London and eventually settling in Dublin. In 1846 he was sent to Ceylon by the British Government as master of landscape drawing, painting, scientific drawing and design at the Colombo Academy. During his time there he was engaged by Sir James Emerson Tennant, Colonial Secretary, to make drawings of Ceylon and in July 1848 they travelled together through the interior of the island for five weeks. He published an account of his tour in 1852 as A Sketching Tour of Five Weeks in the Forest of Ceylon; Its Ruined Temples, Colossal Statues, Tanks, Dagobahs, etc.. From Ceylon he submitted watercolours for exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.