Trained as a lawyer, Nicholson turned to art at twenty-two and studied at the Ruskin School, Oxford in 1878. He spent a winter in Paris in 1881 but tragically only three years later, the year after the present watercolour was executed, he drowned in a boating accident in a Highland Loch.
The present watercolour may be seen as Nicholson's masterpiece, executed on a large scale and exhibited at the Scottish Royal Academy when he was twenty-eight and reaching the height of his powers. During a year in Paris in 1881, he was influenced by the work of the Barbizon School of painters. They concentrated on tonal harmonies and their focus and subject matter was no longer historical or anecdotal incidents, but a matter of fact realism. The day to day lives of the peasants were now credible subjects. The foremost exponents of this movement were artists such as Millet, L'Hermitte and Bastien-Lepage, whose work was regularly shown in the early 1880s in both London and Glasgow and whose main apologist in Britain was Sir George Clausen, who Nicholson seems to echo particularly in the upright figure of the boy with the pitchfork.
Such ideas and innovations were influencial upon a number of other Scottish artists such as W.Y. MacGregor and James Paterson, who studied in Paris from 1878 to 1882, and inaddition Glasgow Boys Lavery, Kennedy, Millie Dow and Roche who also all studied in Paris and during the summer painted at Grez sur Loing. It seems probable that Nicholson was influenced by the work of these artists, many of whom met at MacGregor's life drawing class in his Glasgow Studio.
His work also shows similarities to that of the English artist Frederick Walker (1840-1875), whose works evoke a simple pastoral life and whose figures are posed in what Ruskin referred to as 'galvanised Elgin' attitudes. In composition and subject matter the present work is similar to Walker's Vagrants, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1868 and which was subsequently engraved.
The present watercolour, executed in 1884, can be seen as a the work of a talented and promising youngman, influenced by and responding to the new and exciting ideas amongst the Scottish and Parisian artistic circles.