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February 2011: William Nicholson : An Alphabet, 1897

This month's online exhibition is a celebration of William Nicholson's most famous print series - 'An Alphabet'.

Included are 16 of Nicholson's hand-coloured wood engravings signed in ink from the deluxe edition of 'An Alphabet'. Published in 1897 by William Heinemann, less than 40 sets of these hand-coloured wood engravings exist and are thus very rare.

We also have a complete set of the lithographs, also published in 1897, in an edition of 1500.

Reference: 'William Nicholson : The Graphic Work' by Colin Campbell Cat no 25.


After being very impressed by the young artist’s work, Whistler arranged an interview for Nicholson with the publisher William Heinemann. Marguerite Steen describes this first meeting in her book:

‘Heinemann received him cordially; it was not every day he received young artists bearing such credentials as an introduction from James McNeil Whistler. He wanted, he said, ideas; and William, who, on this occasion at least, showed some of the paternal shrewdness, suggested an Alphabet, at a fiver a letter. Having commissioned A, it was bound to go on to Z, which would secure the rent for twenty-eight weeks at any rate!’

Nicholson produced two sample cuts, A was an Artist and D is for Dandy, which Heinemann approved, then, on the 27th of November 1896, Nicholson signed an agreement with Heinemann to produce ‘a set of twenty-six woodcuts representing the Alphabet’.

Nicholson worked on his designs tirelessly over the next few months in his small house in Avonmore Gardens. An Alphabet was well received by critics and public alike when it was published in October 1897.

Heinemann wrote in the prospectus for An Alphabet:

‘The simplicity of his method will appeal especially to the artist, but the picturesquement of treatment must be appreciated by all, while the wholesomeness and truth to nature of these designs will ensure for them a welcome in every English home. The parent will pleasantly conjure up reminiscences of quaint customs of the past, and the child will be fascinated alike by the bizarre attraction of colour and by the impressive types selected.’

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Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'A was an Artist', Lithograph, 1898.
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'B is Beggar', Hand-Coloured Wood Engraving, 1898.
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'B for Beggar', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'C for Countess', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'D for Dandy', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'E for Earl', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'F for Flower Girl', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'G for Gentleman', Hand-Coloured Wood Engraving, 1898.
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'G for Gentleman', Lithograph, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'H for Huntsman', Hand-Coloured Wood Engraving, 1898
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'H for Huntsman', Lithograph, 1898.
Nicholson, William (1872-1949), 'I for Idiot', Hand-Coloured Wood Engraving, 1898.
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