Mabel Nicholson

Family Group


In Tate Britain

Mabel Nicholson 1871–1918
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1695 × 1479 mm
frame: 1900 × 1700 × 85 mm
Presented by Timothy Nicholson 1991


In the early years of the twentieth century there was a vogue in English painting for the conversation piece, a genre particularly associated at that time with Dutch seventeenth century painters. Family Group may be seen in that context. In common with several other works by Mabel Nicholson, it takes as its subject matter her children. In it, her three younger children, Tony, Nancy and Kit are shown with their nursemaid. Tony stands looking directly at the viewer, his left hand resting on the chair on which the nurse sits sewing. At the nurse's feet is Nancy, her knees pointing up towards her younger brother Kit who stands on the table playing with a model ship. As a pictorial device the ship links the brothers and completes the circular dynamic of the composition, a dynamic that is reinforced by the use of shadow as a visual bridge between the figures.

Apart from physiognomy and social conventions governing dress, the composition itself emphasises the differentiation of sexes. The females, both seated with their heads slightly bowed, are brought together as much by proximity as pose. The girl's subservient position in relation to the nurse perhaps suggesting that the nurse engaged in her domestic chores, is a suitable role model. The boys, on the other hand, stand. The model ship which links them is a replica of The Pandora sent to capture The Bounty after the famous mutiny, 28 April 1789.

In the years immediately preceding the First World War Mabel Nicholson was beginning to establish a following as a major painter working in the realist idiom. In 1918, a year after her son Tony's death at the Front, she died from influenza. One contemporary critic concluded in his review of her posthumous retrospective at The Goupil Gallery in 1920, that she had 'earned herself the right of entrance in the as yet thinly inhabited Pantheon of great women painters' ('Mabel Nicholson', Country Life, London, 17 April 1920). Nonetheless her reputation has been overshadowed by the artistic legacies of her brother, James Pryde, her husband, William Nicholson, and her eldest son, Ben Nicholson.

Toby Treves
March 2000

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Display caption

Nicholson used her children as models, sometimes in dramatic poses or costumes. Here, she shows them with their nanny in a circular composition completed by a model ship. Some see the figures’ positions as representing gender expectations. Nicholson’s daughter’s pose echoes that of her nanny, perhaps associating her future with a nurturing role. Nicholson maintained her artistic career at a time when a married woman was expected to abandon any ambitions outside of her family. She died in the influenza epidemic in 1918.

Gallery label, October 2020

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