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William Nicholson's 'Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland'

William Nicholson's 'Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland'
William Nicholson's 'Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland'
William Nicholson was a painter and printmaker, born on Christmas Day, 1781, in Northumberland. He spent his early life predominantly in Newcastle and Hull. In Newcastle he studied in the studio of the Italian, Boniface Muss (or Musso); in Hull he painted miniatures – and around 1814 he moved to Edinburgh. By 1820 he was well settled there, and remained in the city for the rest of his life.

The prints from this publication are a series of portraits, first published in 1818, that William Nicholson began of eminent Scotsmen – although no date for this particular volume is given. William Nicholson named his series, “Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland”, and used both the techniques of etching and engraving in the same image (etching is the chemical process of eating into the metal plate so that a groove is created for the ink to sit in; engraving uses only tools, without the chemical process, to change the surface of the plate). Especially at the edges of the pictures, it’s easy to see the looser marks of William Nicholson’s etching needle as opposed to his engraving tools.

For his subjects, he drew from his own paintings and from those of other artists’. Robert Burns, for example, is drawn from the famous Alexander Nasmyth painting (1787) in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections; Henry Raeburn from his self-portrait (painted just prior to, or in, 1815, and is also held by the Galleries). And throughout the volume other Enlightenment heroes sit for their portraits, some with accompanying biographical text, some without.

As well as his work as an artist, William Nicholson was instrumental in the founding and establishing of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which we now know as the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1826 he was elected its first secretary, holding the post for a number of years before he stepped aside. His involvement with the academy was something he was well-regarded for at the time.