Below is the transcript of an article Archibald Knox wrote for "Mannin" magazine shortly after the death of John Miller Nicholson.
J M Nicholson was the pre-eminent Manx artist and, together with George Sheffield. he had given his time freely to the Douglas School of Art when Knox was there as a student.
John Miller Nicholson.
I became acquainted with Mr. Nicholson at the time the School of Art was started. At that time he had, as a craftsman, adopted the methods of work of the modern French painters; of those known as Impressionists. He visited the school often: he was enthusiastic about it: Governor Loch's intention was, beginning with the school to make Mann a place for art study; but beside that interest, the teacher who had come to start the school was of a like way of thinking in art matters with himself : had painted under Dutch masters, and came to us direct from the teaching of the notable French sculptor Dalou: (George) Sheffield then lived in Douglas, disposed towards German fashions and visited the school also ; the students, docile, I among them, started as venturesome modernists.
About that time he visited Italy: returned with a reservoir of memories that almost fixed his character as an artist; his experience there did not affect the nature of his craft; it supplied him with new subjects, subjects after his heart: he retained his earlier outlook unchanged, and the change from the severity of his early technique to a later loose and broad condition was slowly going on. He brought back with him a painter's Italy: architecture and its colour tanned and bleached by the strong light of the mildly blue sky: summed up at last and remembered in the incomparable Venice. At the time of his visit he was in the flower of his art: his place among his contemporaries in London of the best; was an exhibitor-by invitation, in the Grosvenor Gallery; had a Verona watercolour hung among the oil paintings: a severe trial that for the strength of a watercolour: maintained such strength and received such trial several times over; proof of his skill in his craft and of the recognition of it by the illustrious painters who accepted him among their companions.
The distinction of his pictures is in the success he achieved in dealing with colour; his aim, to secure a truthful counterpart of the prospect he chose to paint; counterpart of the impression, sentiment, whatever it was, so far as it had a possibly visible symbol in paint; then and not as at any other time; however often he had looked at the prospect and seen quite other things; it was in the colour; felt, seen, remembered, painted; that and that only: outside of that was manufacture, composition, coldness.
He painted from memory; used to say a trained memory carried more of a subject than was necessary to put into a picture; drew very much with lead pencil-in tones: convenient practice in drawing and a record of forms of the subject: notes of colour written on the drawing: sometimes a drawing of the essential facts of colour; painted his picture in its frame, beginning on the focus of the subject, working outwards to the frame : sometimes beginning at the top of the canvas and painting downward; accurate in drawing and in the weights of colour; full of a knowledge of light; master of pigment; carefully made corrections, directed chiefly to complete incomplete forms and harmonize the whole with the square enclosure of the frame..
His skill with pigments was perfect; no modern painter has it in an equal degree; he used paint positively as a subject of art; the surface of his paintings a large part of the pleasure of them; paint, oil, brush-marks, inseparable from the warmth of sunlight and gloom of shadow. Turner was his standard; colour is the subject of Tumer's art also; the sentiment of its colour as its justification; added to imaginative colour, imaginative form: form that with every look builds up anew some unresolvable country, unresolvable memories of sacred landscape: among the "modern" painters form as the medium of the reflection is not preferred more than forms that explain homely obscure things of contemporary life.
In his attitude to Turnerian form, Nicholson takes his place among the moderns: for a distinct reason ; he was a product of Celtic Douglas; came into a heritage of the work of many Celtic generations ; such as it was he grew up in it, knew it, loved it, talked of it till his voice rose and became like a flute; Douglas was untouched; the quays, the ships, the market place, the old streets leading toward it ; the inviolate headlands, the sea, the shore, the busy life, the whitewash and how much more: he saw them all, they became part of him; he painted them, they made him; he had tied himself down to paint them in the protracted and tedious mode of the watercolour teachers; discovered the futility of it, abandoned it; as if the whole place had called out to him "paint me so" and careless of patronage or approval he settled down so to paint; confident in his skill; steadied by a knowledge of contemporary art movements, English, French, Italian, experimenting in their propositions, rejecting, adopting, he became in the sum of his work a great product of Celtic art.
I visited him in his workroom often, when I was young; later, less often and I saw him only in my holidays; I had not been long at work when I discussed with him the wisdom of the method of work into which I had been directed ; the solitary lesson was for me the beginning of an independence in art matters that interested him throughout our long friendship; I saw him last before I set out for America; talked as always of art; I was still independent; colour of the imagination was grey; unattainable in the paint box equally with the gold in which he strove to contain his intention; form of the imagination, form of its colour, simpler and directly a subject of art more than Turner or the moderns had made it ; his sympathy and encouragement seemed to have followed me all the days of my life.