M for Milkmaid
About the work
An illustrated series of woodcuts made in 1896, William Nicholson’s ‘An Alphabet’ was a commission for the London publisher William Heinemann. They developed from hornbooks of the fifteenth century and rely upon a simple formula of matching each letter of the alphabet to an easily recognizable – or unforgettable – figure. Part primer, part cautionary tale, Nicholson injects a strain of menace into some of the the illustrations.
The woodcuts’ starkness of wit is counterbalanced by a softened typography and the artist’s use of hand-colouring, that has fondly been described as ‘Nicholson’s lovely blobby lettering’ by British actress Ellen Terry (she was part of Nicholson’s circle of friends and the artist gifted a number of his works to her)Nicholson is most famous for the prints and poster designs he made in collaboration with the artist James Pryde, whose sister Mabel, Nicholson married in 1893. He and Pryde worked under the name ‘J & W Beggarstaff’, a partnership name that he most likely referred to in his print ‘B for Beggar’. In this work, a beggar holding a staff bears a close resemblance to Pryde; while the figure in ‘A is for Artist’ is noted as bearing resemblance to Nicholson himself. Other prints include subject matters or names of professions which were either typical of an earlier period or of the late 19th century and were depicted in an ironic manner. Another departure from tradition was the exclusion of moralising verses. Due to being sold to children the original ‘E is for Executioner’ and ‘T for Topers’ of the deluxe edition was replaced with the more appropriate ‘E is for Earl’ and ‘T is for Trumpeter’ in the two lithographic editions.
About the artist