This picture is very similar stylistically, and may have originally been a pair to, a View of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, originally in the collection of the Earl of Ilchester, which is signed and dated on the reverse 'J. Nickolls Pinx 1746'. The latter picture, prior to the signature and date on the back of the reverse of the canvas being revealed, was sold by the Earl of Ilchester at Christie's on 19 July 1940 (for the benefit of the British Red Cross Society and Order of Jerusalem) as lot 821, catalogued as being by William Hogarth and Francis Hayman, when it was acquired by 'Davis' for 60 gns. (its size was then recorded as being 35 x 64 ins). It was subsequently sold at Christie's again on 9 July 1948, as lot 158, again catalogued as being by William Hogarth and Francis Hayman, when it sold to Mallet for 320 gns.
Ranelagh House was built for Richard Jones, 1st Earl of Ranelagh (1640-1711), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland (1668-74) and Paymaster General of the Army (1685-1702), to the East of Chelsea Hospital. In 1741, some years after his death, the house and grounds were bought by a syndicate led by Mr Lacy, patentee of the Drury Lane Theatre, and Sir Thomas Robinson, M.P., and laid out as a pleasure gardens to rival those at Vauxhall on the Surrey side of the Thames. They were opened in 1742 and although smaller than those at Vauxhall, they also had beautifully laid out grounds. The centre piece was a large rococo rotunda built by William Jones, a surveyor to the East India company, into which 'everybody that loves eating, drinking, staring or crowding' was admitted for 12 d, where there was an orchestra in which the eight year old Mozart played in 1764. The interior of the Rotunda, which was painted by Canaletto, included the booths for tea and wine drinking along the outer wall. Ranelagh House stood just to the North of the Rotunda and to the West was an ornamental lake beside which a Chinese pavilion was built in 1750. Soon after the gardens opened Horace Walpole wrote that 'it has totally beat Vauxhall ... You can't set your foot inside without treading on a prince, or Duke of Cumberland'. In 1803 the Rotunda was used for the last time and it was demolised two years later and the grounds now form part of Chelsea Hospital gardens.
Little is known about Joseph Nickolls although it is clear from those few works that are known to be by him that he was a gifted painter of topographical London views. A mention of his work in a decorative design of 'a beautiful landscape painting of ruins and running water' at Vauxhall Gardens suggests that he may also have worked as a scenery painter. One of his most impressive works is his view of The Fountain in the Middle Temple in the collection of The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple (see Manners and Morals, Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, catalogue to the exhibition at the Tate Gallery, 1987, no. 113).
The Brett family were connected with Ranelagh Gardens, having inherited a fine house there that had been built by General Richard Wilford (1754 -1814) who had married Anna Forbes, whose sister Isabella married Joseph George Brett (1760-1845), of Grove House, Old Brompton. General Wilford, for whom see lot 45, had also been a considerable shareholder in the Ranelagh Gardens venture.
We are grateful to Elizabeth Einberg for her assistance in cataloguing this picture.