Violets, Vases and Vistas.

Recently I have visited a wonderfully inspiring exhibition of paintings by Winifred Nicholson (1893 – 1981 ) in which she explores amongst other subjects – violets, vases and vistas.

It is currently touring the UK and can be seen in Nottingham, until the 4th June 2017, at the Lakeside Art Gallery situated on the edge of the Nottingham University Campus at Highfield Park and is easily accessed by Nottingham’s newish Tram Service.  The exhibition will then move on to Falmouth in Cornwall for the duration of the Summer and can be viewed there until the middle of September.

The exhibition is called ‘Liberation of Colour’.

Lakeside Art Gallery, Highfields Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.

The exhibition entry is free and there is an accompanying catalogue-book titled ‘Winifred Nicholson – Liberation of Colour’ which has been written by her art historian grandson Jovan Nicholson which I would highly recommend buying.




There is also a short video (see link below) in which Jovan Nicholson chooses three of her flower paintings to explain significant aspects of her work.  Flower, Table, Pots (1927) – Bankshead Flowers in an Alabastar Jar (c 1928) – Lily of the Valley, St Bees (1940).   He focuses especially on her use of ‘pink magenta’ ( which I think of as ‘violet’ ! ) also her brisk approach to brushwork and finally her deft compositional techniques.

Winifred (Dacre) Nicholson is perhaps most notably remembered as being an accomplished ‘colourist’ painter.  In particular she explored and developed her own palette from a theory of colours which she devised and recorded in a book, also titled ‘Liberation of Colour’ and published in 1944.

She compiled an interesting colour chart in which she takes pure hue colours as a midway starting point, then sets out seven upward brighter or lighter steps (tones and tints) and then seven downward deeper or darker steps (tones and shades).  This arrangement explores in a graphical way the subtleties and complexities of colour notation.  These steps also create colour ‘octaves’ which  clearly references and relates to the linking of colour with music.


Within the colour chart ( p 24 of the catalogue-book – as shown above ) she also transforms the steps of tints and shades into named everyday items.

These items for the most part have a clear common ‘colour’ meaning to us all – items such as putty and pewter, or straw and hay; they are chosen to evoke strong emotional visual memories. Although, obviously,  this is not  a rigorous scientific method as the  items cannot, in terms of their colour, be accurately measured.  It would also be too difficult to give exact numerical weighting to each item as this approach would be too subjective to sensibly achieve. Nevertheless each of these particular words do have a validity of their own and they elicit feelings which hold a strong resonance.


‘Cumberland Hills’ by Winifred Nicholson – 1948

A typical painting from the exhibition that is representative of her main themes and stylistic approach to painting is entitled ‘Cumberland Hills’ it was painted in 1948.  Shown above and chosen because it encapsulates violets in a vase with a vista.

Earlier in her career Winifred Nicholson had also interestingly and additionally explored abstract painting.  She exchanged ideas with artists such as Mondrian – especially during her Paris period.  Examples of these powerful and colourful abstract works by her are also included in this current exhibition.  Also and much later on she inventively introduced a rainbow edging effect to some of her subjects and this work was inspired by looking at and observing the world through a glass prism.

However her most frequent recurring subject matter; the one to which she constantly returns to as a favourite theme for reinterpretation is that of plants and landscapes.  The painting above, characteristically includes a foreground floral interest with a scenic backdrop.  It is clearly descriptive in style – yet combines both impressionistic and expressive techniques.  It shows a vase with violas (heartsease) placed on a window cill and with a view out to the distant lakeland hills beyond. The whole painting has a carefree atmosphere and the colours are carefully selected to be soft and luminous.

There is also a constant and successful interplay between harmonious and contrasting tints and tones.  But, although the painting reveals an underlying observational certainty the detail and outline accuracy of the subject’s form is imprecise as this aspect is of secondary importance to Nicholson’s overriding purpose which was to capture the movement and fluidity of life itself.

Despite considerable family responsibilities and setbacks Winifred Nicholson determinedly continued to paint throughout her life.  She produced an extensive and impressive body of work developed over a career spanning sixty years.  The locations of her landscapes are varied and include the English Lake District, Scotland and its Isles, Greece (Mycenae and the Peloponnese).  These landscapes are rural, rugged places where it is hard to earn a good living from the land.  As wild and relatively uninhabited places they become beautiful, lyrical and romantic backgrounds.  Usually within her composition she also uses the native flora to provide a focus of interest.  These  flowers often growing in the distant landscape  are given greater prominence by their placement in vases at the forefront of the picture.

Often the paintings are framed from an interior and the outside is then viewed through a window.  This technique impresses upon us that we too see the world through multi-layered viewpoints.

I find it is  especially enjoyable and also useful to visit exhibitions where the artists work coincides with my own interests and hopefully, likewise, you will find her work of relevance too.  I know that it encourages me and gives impetus and meaning to my own efforts.  ( See the feature image at the top of the page. ) My small contribution to the continuing and ongoing painting dialogue is to show a detail from a watercolour which I completed a while ago of African Violets and which I felt  was fairly appropriate to use  here !



Donovan songwriter and musician sings ‘Lady of the Flowers’ (1981).



All the photographs and the artwork are my own.

The images of Winifred Nicholson’s work are from the book ‘Liberation of Colour’ by Jovan Nicholson published in 2016 by Phillip Wilson Publishers / I B Touris & Co Ltd.


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