The scene is the artist's home at Rottingdean on a hot summer's day. A couple of children pose by the front door of 'The Grange' wearing elegant costumes of the late 1830s. An indistinct figure watches them from the cool of the doorway; behind her a pattern of shadows is formed from the arch of the internal porch cutting across the window that lights the stairs. The sunlight has an almost Mediterranean intensity, giving a solidity to the Ionic colums of the porch and revealing the drip marks from the leading above. By contrast the right half of the canvas is in dappled shadow; light filtering through the leaves of a large tree outside the picture space that shades a sketchy, reclining figure in a red cloak. The red bow on a crook behind him suggests an Arcadian shepherd of the Downs. The size of the tree and the depth of the picture space is indicated by a swathe of bunting running from the tree above us to the porch, where a large Union Jack hangs like a portière curtain across the window above the porch. A gentle breeze lifts the bunting and softens the shadows beneath the tree.
On the 22nd June 1911 the artist's garden was the setting for a lavish pageant play 'St George for Merrie England', with which the inhabitants of Rottingdean celebrated the delayed coronation of George V. Most of the villagers took part, including the artist's eleven year old daughter Nancy. A wooden castle was built in the grounds to form a stage setting. After brief excursions into the time of the Druids and Romans, the theme of the pageant is revealed as the quest of St George and his knights for 'England beyond the Seas' whose help is needed. Aided by the Boat of Time, they pass from Saxon England (scene III) to Elizabethan England (scene IV), and with the aid of the Boy Scouts their quest finally ends with a series of Tableaux representing India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; finishing up with an Empire Song especially composed for the occasion. The celebrations then moved on to St Aubyn's School nearby where there were sports, including the wheelbarrow race (with the driver blind-folded) and a hobble-shirt race, followed by a sit-down tea for 500 adults, with 200 children entertained in the village school. Later that evening a torchlight procession, headed by the Fire Brigade, set off for Beacon Hill where a bonfire was lit and the firework display from Brighton enjoyed.
William Nicholson's only reference to the event is to be found in a letter to his friend and patron, T.W. Bacon, written five days later, 'I escaped the Coronation fuss and spent it at Rottingdean where no barricades grow'. This seems a curious understatement. For it is on record in the illustrated Souvenir of the Grand Pageant that, 'nearly two hundred of the residents participated in the play, which took place in the grounds of the 'Grange' by kind permission of William Nicholson, Esq'. The author of the Souvenir continues, 'unfortunately, the day was a somewhat depressing one, and the intermittent showers and strong south-westerly wind were very disappointing elements ... had the sun been shining it would have been the means of enhancing to a very considerable extent the effect of the performance'. It would therefore appear that Coronation Day in Rottingdean was neither hot, nor sunny, nor did the Pageant contain any figures in the elegant costumes of the 1830s. But undoubtedly there was the bunting and Union Jack, which the artist was to use to good effect in the double portrait of the Hart-David children, 1912 (private collection). The painting must therefore be seen as Nicholson's own Coronation Day Pageant on canvas. The Nicholson family loved theatricals and fancy dress, and in the 1920s the artist organised a series of pageants at Sutton Veney. However, in Rottingdean in 1911 he was a newcomer, having only moved to the village in the autumn of 1909. His house, which he named 'The Grange', had been the Vicarage until the previous year and its extensive grounds, consisting of fields enclosed by flint stone walls, featured in many of his landscape paintings; for example, Landscape near Rottingdean, 1910 (sold Sotheby's, London, 21 June 1995, lot 29) formerly in the collection of the subsequent owner of The Grange; Sir George Lewis, Bt. (Photographs of the Pageant taken from the illustrated Souvenir can be found in S.M. Moens, Rottingdean: The Story of a Village, 1953, pp. 151-154; these include the wooden castle in the garden of 'The Grange').
Coronation Day at Rottingdean has obvious links with Nicholson's highly successful The First Communion, 1907, shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 2005, no. 8, such as the shadowy figure in the doorway and the dark window openings. These flat architectural façades set in a shallow picture space feature in several works, but the division into light and shade is novel, and little details such as the shadow patterns in the doorway are very confident. There is also a greater sense of depth to the picture space. The identity of the children is unknown. Lillian Browse identifies the little girl as Jennie Carpenter, a favourite model of Nicholson's at this date, but she was blonde - as in Jennie as Infanta, 1911, sold Christie's, London, 7 June 1985, lot D, and the costume is of a later period (see Browse, op. cit, no. 195). As to the small boy, despite his shiny stove-pipe hat, he appears to be considerably shorter than his partner and may have been added to focus attention on the doorway group; the original intention being that the girl should look to the figure beneath the tree.
We are very grateful to Patricia Reed for providing the catalogue entry for this lot and lot 96.