watercolourist, etcher and lithographer, was born in Camberwell Grove, near London. William Dixson thought that his London etchings and mezzotints (now lost) showed that he was 'evidently apprenticed to a good firm of engravers and lithographers and attained a very high standard’. An entry in Ormond’s Early Victorian Portraits indicates that he was probably trained by or worked with A.M. Huffam, an English line and mezzotint engraver and lithographer, and that an 1830 engraving of William IV (British Museum) is his work. He arrived at Sydney on 25 February 1836 in the Roslyn Castle , commanded by Captain Richards, a relative. Years later sketches and sketchbooks that Nicholas left with Richards were restored to the family but have since been lost, probably dispersed.

According to Dixson and Lionel Lindsay , the collection showed that Nicholas was fond of depicting Shakespearian and mythological subjects. The erotic tendencies and 'effeminate temperament’ Lindsay found in Danae , Leda and The Family Group drawn in Sydney (which depicted the artist, his wife and children nude) were evidence of the influence of 'Fuseli, Stothard and the “keepsake” artists’. Lindsay referred to 'the rustle of skirts [Nicholas] drew for a livelihood’ and Dixson also noted his English fashion-plate illustrations. A sketch for a large picture of Venus Victrix was described by Dixson, while Lindsay referred to an 'etching’ of the Jamaican boatman Billy Blue (see East ), the only evidence that Nicholas etched in New South Wales.

Nicholas certainly made lithographs and he apparently used an anastatic press which produced prints from zinc plates. In November 1838 Edward Barlow 's Repository of Arts announced that it would publish 'A FAITHFUL PORTRAIT OF Sir Richard Bourke, a Full length Portrait of Mrs Taylor in the character of Don Giovanni / Also a full length portrait of MARY, a Native Black of Sydney … [and] the whole are drawn upon Zink by Mr W. Nicholas … who claims the sole right to use the art of Zincography in N.S.W. and Van Diemen’s Land’. By November 1840 Nicholas was reported as 'conducting Mr. Barlow’s business’. He produced plain and coloured lithographs of the boy Forbes (then recently rescued from 16 years of slavery on the island of Timor Laut) and a set of Profiles of Australian Aborigines which were largely reworkings of William Fernyhough 's Profiles of Natives . A lithograph after John Skinner Prout 's New Government House and Macquarie Fort, As Seen from the Domain (which Lionel Lindsay considered a 'brilliant translation…to the stone’) was recommended in the Australian of 30 January 1841 to those who wished 'to convey some idea of Sydney to their friends at a distance’.

Nicholas was best known as a portraitist. His large watercolour of Hannah Tompson, daughter-in-law of Charles Tompson senior , is dated 1839 (Mitchell Library [ML]). A smaller watercolour of John Dunmore Lang (ML) was made in 1841 for the wife of Robert Russell , while a miniature of Ellen McDouall Fitzgerald (Mrs John Crichton Stuart) in her wedding-dress (p.c.) was obviously painted the same year – when she married. In January 1842 Nicholas set up on a grander scale, advertising as a 'miniature painter on ivory and in watercolours, lithographer and draughtsman’. He provided an attiring room for ladies to change into their best clothes at his studio-residence, 6 Elizabeth Street South, and charged from 1 to 3 guineas for his portrait miniatures.

Samuel Elyard recollected that Nicholas was in demand from soon after his arrival and surviving portraits prove that he soon attracted the colony’s social and professional √©lite. Several versions of Anna Maria Macarthur’s likeness (private collections) and portraits of Mary Murray , Bishop William Grant Broughton (ML) and Major T.L. Mitchell are dated 1843. His portrait of Benjamin Boyd Esq was reported as having been published by Arden’s Sydney Magazine that year. Nicholas’s portrait of John Rae , which J.S. Prout lent to the 1845 Hobart Town Exhibition, would also have been drawn in 1843. Despite such commissions, by August 1843 Nicholas was in debt for the huge sum of ¬£1,422 8s 4d (said, however, to have been incurred years earlier). Further misfortune was visited on him in 1844 in the form of a 'large ball of fire, about two feet in diameter descending perpendicularly through the gable end of Mr. Nicholas’, the portrait painter’s house… A valuable collection of books and paintings were totally consumed, the furniture destroyed… the grate was forced from the fire place, and the very fire irons and fender melted down.’

During 1847-48 Nicholas drew and lithographed most of the portraits in William Baker 's Heads of the People and was mentioned in the journal as a watercolour and miniature painter. In 1847 the Sydney Morning Herald stated that he had 'more heads offered to him for decapitation than he is able to take care of’. His portrait of W.C. Wentworth, lithographed by J. Allan , was issued gratis with the Sydney Daily Advertiser of 2 September 1848. W.H. Ford included his drawing, Infant Piety , in that year’s lottery of 30 art works to be distributed among 200 subscribers paying a guinea each, while both first and second prizes offered in Joseph Grocott’s third art union in 1850 were a 'Water Colour Portrait of the winner to be painted by Mr. Nicholas, Sydney, neatly framed’.

Nicholas took an active part in Sydney’s early art exhibitions. The seven pictures he entered in the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia in 1847 received a lengthy critique in the Sydney Morning Herald , the reviewer calling Nicholas 'one of those quiet unobtrusive men of genius who work their way into notice and distinction without any assistance from the newspapers…He endeavours to make his backgrounds harmonise with his figures and is generally successful in the sketches of scenery he occasionally throws in.’ Nicholas also lent two contemporary English paintings from his collection to the exhibition: Italian Landscape by J. Dearman and Dancing Dolls by H. Montague.

His contributions to the society’s second exhibition in 1849 were less flatteringly reviewed, one of his 23 entries, Passiflora , being described as 'Full in size but deficient in quality’, while Death of Surveyor Kennedy was called 'a horrible detail, totally unfitted for public gaze’. Lady and Child was said to be 'in this artist’s best style except the drapery which is stiff and overdone’ and a portrait of Dr Bland was labelled 'daguerreotypist’ and 'several shades inferior’ to a portrait of the same sitter by Richard Read junior . The reviewer thought that 'miniature painters seldom become great artists, but when if as the one they strive to reach the other, a long course of study is requisite’. Nicholas had, however, been one of the three self-promoting artists comprising the hanging committee (the others were Conrad Martens and James Wilson ), all of whom were criticised for including excessive numbers of their own works and hanging them in the best places, a 'gross injustice against all other exhibitors’. This doubtless coloured the critique.

At this time Nicholas’s studio was at 197 Elizabeth Street but by April 1851 he was at 93 King Street, in the same building as the portrait painter Henry Robinson Smith . He last advertised as a portrait and miniature painter in July 1853, giving his address as Jamison Street. By then many miniature painters were being affected by the advent of photography, yet late portraits by Nicholas ('the society artist’) are not uncommon. Existing examples include a miniature of Hon. George Thornton (1852, ML) and at least two watercolour portraits of Sarah Morton Wentworth (wife of William Charles), thought to date from 1853 when she was about to leave for England and commissioned Nicholas to paint portraits of all the family as mementos. On 24 December 1853 the printers Woolcott & Clarke issued a steel engraving by Loftus of Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand 'from a pencil drawing by Mr Nicholas adapted from an imperfect daguerreotype’ taken when the bishop was visiting Sydney earlier in the year. So he may initially have profited from the new process, transferring daguerreotypes to the then more stable medium of watercolour.

Shortly before his death Nicholas purchased a farm at Kurnell, a possible indication of a change of career, but died aged 48 on 23 June 1854. Even in death nature was unkind, his corpse being almost washed from the open boat taking it from Kurnell across Botany Bay during a storm. He was buried in Sydney on 26 June. His widow and young family moved to New England leaving a number of unfinished portraits with H.R. Smith. Later Nicholas’s son alleged that a portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel George Johnston which Smith had signed (ML) was actually one of his father’s paintings Smith had merely touched up, offering as proof sketches for the portrait in one of the lost sketchbooks.

In Gleanings from My Scrap Book (1874), John Rae called Nicholas 'a clever but neglected artist’ and selected a photolithograph after The First Fancy Ball in Australia as his frontispiece. Dixson described him as 'clever, witty and rather caustic’ with a fair knowledge of the 'Italian, French and Spanish languages’. Numerous watercolour portraits of prominent European colonists, Aborigines and even Maoris (probably drawn in Sydney) survive in both public and private collections. Although apparently leaving the field of oil portraiture to James Wilson, Nicholas was generally considered, as the Sydney Morning Herald stated, 'the best portrait painter in watercolours in the colony’ in the 1840s.

Writers:
Johnson, Heather
Date written:
1992
Last updated:
2011