Max Beerbohm by William Nicholson

For my first post, I’ve chosen “Max Beerbohm” (1903) painted by the sitter’s good friend William Nicholson (1872-1949). Despite being a prolific and well-known artist, even during his lifetime, Nicholson and his work are difficult to categorize, encompassing still-lifes, portraits, wood cuttings and even costume design for the theatre. In fact, Nicholson refused an invitation to be considered for election to the prestigious Royal Academy on the grounds that he resented being labelled. It is quite ironic then that my introduction to this artist was at a retrospective of his work held at the RA in 2004.

If there is one unifying theme, however, it is the relationship between Nicholson and his subject e.g. how he represent what he sees and, in turn, how much should he give away in the process. The portrait of caricaturist and author Beerbohm is a perfect example of this interplay. As with many of his portraits, Beerbohm is shown from the side and the effect is that he, or by extension, the viewer doesn’t want to intrude or presume. Nicholson emphasizes the private, more introspective side of his friend by painting him with his eyes closed. The result is quite haunting and certainly more informal (or less guarded) than Beerbohm, as a prominent dandy, would have appeared in reality. From the viewer’s perspective, one must wonder if he is sad, weary, resigned or simply affecting modesty by turning away. This 3-way conversation between artist, sitter and viewer allows for a certain amount of tension and ambiguity, which is only reinforced by the small size of the canvas (approx. 50 x 40cm).

Nicholson also managed to invoke personality and meaning through the skilful use of shadows and tonality. In this portrait, the shadows convey a shallow space set against an undefined background. The tawny beige wall, with its luminous brushwork, gives the subject a “blank canvas” to create his own terms of reference. With no reliance on props, the viewer has to make assumptions about the sitter and here Nicholson emphasizes Beerbohm’s sensitivity about his appearance through the use of various shades of black from the sleek hair and polished shoes to the top hat and full-length coat. In a letter written by Beerbohm, he teased about Nicholson’s love of low tones in painting and this portrait is the ultimate representation of such technique. In fact, while Nicholson uses the small scale of the canvas to convey intimacy, his fondness for Beerbohm is also evident by the weightiness and presence given to the sitter.

In conclusion, I’m drawn to Nicholson’s work not only because of his ability as a painter but the hidden trickery of his images. His use of reflections and shadows are like visual puns which serve to engage the viewer even further.  While this may have been par for the course with still-life paintings, portraits were not often given this consideration which highlights the important role Nicholson played in the history of British art.