William NICHOLAS, not titled [Lady and child]. Enlarge 1 /1


England 1807 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1854

  • Australia from 1836

not titled [Lady and child]. c.1847 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, painting in watercolour over drawing in black pencil, with touches of ground gold leaf, highlighted with gum arabic Support: cardboard

Primary Insc: signed lower right within image in watercolour, 'W NICHOLAS'. not titled.
Tertiary Insc: Inscribed in black pencil verso, 'When these pictures are framed / they are to be cut close & mounted / upon a piece of cardboard with a / margin of two inches all round / WN
Dimensions: image (irregular) 22.4 h x 17.6 w cm sheet 24.7 h x 19.8 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2007
Accession No: NGA 2007.216
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, from Peter Arnold Antiquarian Booksellers, Melbourne, 2007.

A ready market for portraiture arose with the spread of settlement and the rise of prosperity in colonial Australia. From the 1820s to the 1850s there were more professional portraitists working in both watercolour and oil in the colony than landscape artists.

Watercolourist, etcher and lithographer William Nicholas (1807–1854) found acclaim after just ten years in Australia, with the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 July 1847 reporting: ‘His fame is now established in Sydney as the best portrait painter in watercolours in the colony, and the consequence is that there are more heads offered to him for decapitation than he is able to take off.’

Nicholas’s sensitively rendered untitled watercolour reflects the much sought-after English portrait style of the period. An exquisitely painted portrait, the faces in particular are superb examples of the stippling technique for which Nicholas was renowned. Further research may well reveal the identity of this fashionable, well-to-do young mother and her child, dressed in finely embroidered christening robe and bonnet.

Even in the distant colonies, the quiet, demure aspects of women’s dress of the Victorian period dictated fashion. Watered silks in pastel tones were the height of fashion in the 1840s, and the woman’s gown of celestial blue typically has a high bodice with a low-waisted, V-shaped front panel trimmed with a white lace collar. The influence of medievalism is evident in the angular lines of the bodice with its reference to the Gothic arch. Showy, full sleeves slowly lost favour in the Victorian period and the dress has stylish, closely fitting sleeves with pleating at the elbow. By contrast, the skirt is full, to emphasise the narrow sculpted waistline. The hairstyle is also typical of contemporary fashion: centrally parted, held by combs, ringlets forward of the ears, and a plaited knot at the back. The gold brooch on her bodice, painted in a blend of ground gold leaf and gum arabic, is a delicate final touch.

Anne McDonald
Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra