Mabel Nicholson

The Harlequin


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Not on display

Mabel Nicholson 1871–1918
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1018 × 643 mm
frame: 1238 × 856 × 72 mm
Presented by Timothy Nicholson 1982

Display caption

William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde painted several portraits of their four children. Here, Annie Mary ’Nancy’ Nicholson (1899–1977) is eleven years old. There is no sentimentality about the scene and a theatrical effect is created by the dark interior and the harlequin outfit, one of several costumes kept in the family dressing-up box. Mabel Nicholson died in the influenza epidemic in 1918. Nancy became an artist too, and in the same year married the writer Robert Graves.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

T03464 The Harlequin c.1910

Oil on canvas 40 3/8 × 25 7/8 (1018 × 643)
Inscribed ‘The Harlequin by Mabel Nicholson’ on stretcher
Presented by Timothy Nicholson 1982
Prov: Possibly Ben Nicholson (inscribed ‘B Nicholson, 97 King's Road, Chelsea’ on stretcher); Nancy Nicholson; Timothy Nicholson
Exh: Paintings by the late Mabel Nicholson, Goupil Gallery, April 1920 (9, as ‘Harlequin No.2’)?

A portrait of Nancy Nicholson, the third child of Mabel Pryde and William Nicholson. Nancy was born Annie Mary Pryde Nicholson in 1899. She married Robert Graves in 1918 after meeting him in Harlech in 1916. She died in 1977.

William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde painted several portraits of their children. Mabel Pryde's exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1920 lists ‘Nancy with the Rabbit’ and ‘Nancy’ among the 28 works in the exhibition.

William Nicholson's ‘Nancy in Profile’ 1912 (private collection) was painted at about the same time as the Tate picture and it also shows Nancy against a dark background. It is illustrated in colour in the Arts Council catalogue, William Nicholson, Paintings, Drawings and Prints, July 1980–January 1981, p.7.

The theatre held a particular attraction for Mabel Pryde. Her brother, James Pryde, had a brief career as an actor. She and William Nicholson admired Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; Terry's son Edward Gordon Craig was a close friend.

According to the donor (the artist's grandson) Nicholson and Pryde kept a large chest of dressing-up clothes. He believes that the Harlequin outfit was probably one of the costumes kept in this chest and that the Harlequin was probably chosen for this portrait as it fitted Nancy best at the time. Mabel Pryde's ‘Portrait of Kit as a Child’ (private collection), a portrait of her fourth child, shows a Harlequin's outfit draped over a box with a red-handled sword leaning against it.

The Harlequin appears to have been one of Mabel Pryde's favourite subjects. The Goupil Gallery exhibition included four Harlequin paintings - ‘The Silver Harlequin’, ‘Harlequin No. 1’, ‘Harlequin No. 2’ and ‘Harlequin Asleep’. ‘The Columbine’ also appears among the exhibits, columbine being harlequin's sweetheart in the Commedia dell'Arte. ‘Harlequin No. 1’ (repr. Country Life, 17 April 1920, p.509) depicts a Harlequin against a dark background, facing right with its arms folded. It almost certainly represents Nancy. ‘Harlequin Asleep’ (private collection) may also represent Nancy.

The artist wrote in a letter to Max Beerbohm (? 1911) ‘Nancy is getting lovely. So tall and so fascinating.’

In 1909 Mabel Pryde and her family moved to the Old Vicarage, Rottingdean. It is possible that this work was painted there. ‘The Grange, Rottingdean’ (private collection) shows Nancy sitting in front of a tall window with long red curtains. It is possible that this is the window depicted in the Tate picture.

Mabel Pryde lived as a child in 10 Fettes Row, a north-facing Edinburgh house. Derek Hudson writes in James Pryde, 1949, ‘The impression is one of narrowness and semi-darkness, a weird half-light illuminating the entire perpendicular lines of the interior’ (p.13). This might partly account for the sombreness which prevails in Mabel Pryde's work and the work of her brother, and which is evident in ‘The Harlequin’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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