William Nicholson’s portraits

A selection of celebrated personalities of the early 1800s (men, that is) sit for their portraits in a publication of etchings and engravings by William Nicholson (1781 – 1844) which makes up our latest Capital Collections exhibition.

It is notable that all the portraits are of men and this reflects attitudes towards the female sex during the early 1800s which precluded recognition of their contribution towards society and opportunities for women to gain an education and take up significant positions in Scotland. Our historic collections in Edinburgh Libraries reflect these attitudes and have impacted the make-up of our collections dating from the past.

Nicholson’s series comes with the somewhat grand title of Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland, and although William Nicholson began the series in 1818, no date is given for this particular volume.

It’s a large book. The pages are embossed either from the typesetting or the prints, the endpapers are marbled, and the corners are rounded and worn. Usually it sits on a shelf in a closed access area of Central Library – down the back stairs, around a few corners – a companion to the darkness, dust and a lot of quiet.

Walter Scott, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

William Nicholson was born on Christmas day, 1781, in Northumberland. He was a painter and printmaker (not to be confused with the later William Nicholson (1872 – 1949), also a painter and printmaker), and 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 use 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 a 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.

Robert Burns, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

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, and this involvement was something for which he was well-regarded at the time.

Have a browse on our exhibition on Capital Collections for a closer look at the pictures.