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For the appreciation of art

There are two plaques on the walls of houses in Village Road. One, well known, appears on the wall of Hills House marking the home of the great actor Sir John Mills .

Then there is another, commemorating a family which has been described as “one of the greatest dynasties of British art”. It is located about eye level on the outside wall of the White Cottage on Village Road. It deserves investigation.

Wall plaques

Let's briefly divert away from the village to find something of the history of commemorative plaques that appear on houses and other properties where people who have had an impact on history have lived. It's an idea that fits very well with our commitment to a people's history of our own village.

It all began as long ago as 1863 when William Ewart, a British politician who was also promoter of public libraries, first suggested the idea of recognising houses of historical interest in London. The idea caught on. In 1866 the Society of Arts became responsible for a scheme to putting up 35 plaques in London. It is believed to be the oldest scheme of its kind in existence. Of those first plaques installed in 1867, one commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron and another the London residence of Napoleon III, first President of France.

In 1901 the Society’s responsibility for the scheme passed to the London County Council. It was the County Council that formalised the selection criteria and administrative processes with the aim of helping to preserve buildings with notable historical associations, as well as educating the public and enliven London’s streets. Initially plaques were created in a wide range of different forms and colours, but the County Council later developed the blue glazed ceramic rondel plaque design that was used consistently in London after the 1940s to the present day.

When the London County Council was disbanded in 1965, responsibility for the London blue plaques scheme passed to the Greater London Council. English Heritage took over in 1986 and began encouraging the adoption of similar schemes around the country. English Heritage now acts in a national advisory role, supporting existing and projected commemorative plaque projects and schemes. Wherever they are located, plaques have come to be acknowledged as one of the best ways of highlighting the historical associations of buildings with people or events. Commemorative plaques foster community interest in local history and the local historical environment. There are now at least 300 plaque schemes in the UK. Some are focused on specific geographical areas while others are thematic such as those that recognize contributions from ethnic minorities and outstanding women scientists.

In its capacity as the national advisor on plaque projects English Heritage sets out the rules and regulations in its 150 page Celebrating People and Place: Guidance on Commemorative Plaques and Plaque Schemes. That is where the selection criteria first formalised in 1954 are now to be found. The London scheme, driven by public suggestion and recommendation, continues to grow by about 12 plaques each year and generates interest around the world. Over the last few years, English Heritage has responded to hundreds of enquiries regarding plaques across the United Kingdom and has now begun to carry out an audit of existing plaque schemes across England.

According to English Heritage:

“Effective plaques are the result of a process of involved and detailed work, which will often be time-consuming and may also be costly. This reflects the fact that they are the product of joint effort. At a basic level, they will involve an individual or organisation who provides funding, an initial proposer, a researcher (and perhaps another responsible for selecting a building and composing an inscription), a person who handles the administration, the owner of a building who (all being well) gives their consent to the plaque, a representative of the local planning authority (who will need to be consulted), a designer, manufacturer, and a contractor responsible for the plaque’s installation. Furthermore, the property concerned may be listed, a statutory designation that marks and celebrates a building’s architectural and historic significance; in such cases, listed building consent for the plaque will need to be sought from the local planning authority.”

So armed with that advice, early in November 2009 the Denham Parish Council began the process to mark the residence of a family of some of England's greatest artists.

The White Cottage

Many of the old buildings that survive in Denham Village have evolved organically over centuries leaving an assortment of buildings of different dates, scale, styles, functions and materials. There has never been any single pre-dominant landowner to impose uniformity and, whilst there is evidence of some common elements and influences, variety is one of Denham’s key characteristics.

The term used to describe houses built mainly from locally available materials reflecting custom and tradition more than any architectural fashion is "vernacular". Denham's Village Road has many such buildings. They are timber framed buildings, though most have had their timber frames re-fronted in brick.

These vernacular buildings cannot be accurately dated without detailed survey. Most are listed with 16th or 17th century dates based only on cursory external inspection, internal inspections being unusual. Where timber-frames remain exposed they have an immediate visual impact in the street scene and make a significant contribution to the picturesque quality and aura of antiquity present in the village.

The vernacular cottages are no taller than two storeys, although some have dormers lighting an attic. Alterations to the vernacular buildings over the centuries have changed their character. It is likely that many originated as hall houses and were later subdivided, with the insertion of an upper floor and walls to create separate rooms and sometimes an attic. Late 18th century and 19th century documents show that these buildings had been divided into multiple dwellings. With the growth of affluence in the later 20th century, cottages have been converted into single dwellings resulting not only in internal alterations but changes in external features, such as blocked up doorways. The White Cottage has clearly undergone several of these changes and alterations.

An unusual and intriguing gauged brick feature can be found on the western gable of White Cottage, obscured from view by a yew tree in the garden of Wrango next door. It takes the form of a blind Venetian window, with panels of vitrified headers, most of which have retained their glaze because they are protected from the weather by the tree and an ovolo (rounded) moulding running across the top of the “window”. The brickwork appears to be 18th century and it seems likely that the feature would have been created to beautify the side wall of the cottage when its neighbour was demolished to make way for the building of Wrango in the early 18th century. White Cottage exemplifies the special interest of Denham’s roofscape with its old clay tiles, shaped gables, and unusual dormer with its double height window.

The Cottage also has two historic fire insurance plaques placed there before the days of the public service fire brigade to tell the privately owned fire service companies that the building is insured and that their bills for saving the property from conflagration will be paid. The old insurance records now provide a valuable source of information on a building’s history.

The Nicholsons Home

The Grade II listed White Cottage was believed to have been the home of the artist Sir William Nicholson and the birthplace of his son Ben, who became an internationally distinguished artist as an adult. Step 1 was to confirm the story. That was quickly achieved. The cottage was confirmed as the residence, for about four years in the 1890s, of Nicholson and his wife Mabel Pryde, herself an artist in her own right whose talents have only more recently been recognised. They had married in Ruislip in 1893 and moved into the cottage then known as The Eight Bells after its relatively brief period as a beerhouse in the 1860s. No doubt the property as a beerhouse acquired this name as it stood next to St Mary's church with its peal of 8 bells.

As is apparent from a later Ordnance Survey map of 1899 the property was formed of two cottages giving the Nicholsons quite a sizeable living space and certainly enough room for Mabel’s brother, James, to join them there. The first of their four children Ben was born into the house in April 1894. Though the family’s time in Denham was relatively short - they were living in Woodstock in Oxfordshire by 1897 - Ben’s birth in Denham gives the cottage great significance.

With confirmation that the Nicholsons had indeed lived in what we now know as the White Cottage and that their son Ben had been born there, the Council secured the necessary local authority consents and permission to proceed from the then owners. By 10 November the design of the plaque had been approved and the placement on the wall of the Cottage had been determined. All plans had followed the advice from English Heritage.

Who was Sir William Nicholson ?

William Newzar Prior Nicholson was born in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire in February 1872. He is famed as a painter for his landscapes, and portraits, and works of still life. He was also a well-known engraver, illustrator of children’s books and well known for his achievements as a graphic artist. Included in his many works as an illustrator were his contributions to the early editions of the works of First World War poet, Robert Graves.

From 1893 to 1898 Nicholson collaborated with his brother-in-law James Pryde on poster design and other graphic work including signboard painting and book illustration. They traded as The Beggarstaffs or otherwise J. & W. Beggarstaff. From about 1900 Nicholson concentrated on painting, encouraged by the great early 20th century American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He first exhibited as a painter at the International Society, of which Whistler was President.

Amongst William's friends was J.M.Barrie creator of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up and it was for Barrie that in 1904 Nicholson the elder prepared the original stage designs for Peter Pan. Ben Nicholson later laid claim to the design of the Red Indian Chief which he said he had drawn at the age of 7. He complained that he had never been paid. William went went on to design other plays and to illustrate several books.

As a teacher, Nicholson had a number of pupils, including, in the 1930s, Winston Churchill. Churchill wrote of him "I think the person who taught me most about painting was William Nicholson".

Nicholson was awarded a gold medal in the graphic works section of the Art competitions at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam for his Almanach de douze sports 1898, the French edition of the Almanac of Twelve Sports, which he had first published 30 years earlier in a collaboration with Rudyard Kipling. William Nicholson served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1934 to 1939 and was knighted in 1936. He died at the age of 77 in Oxfordshire.

Mabel Pryde

Often overlooked until the recent focus on redressing the balance for women artists in British art history, is William Nicholson’s wife, Mabel Pryde Nicholson, sister of the artist James Ferrier Pryde. Though her professional career was short – from 1904 to 1917 – Mabel is now rightly recognised a considerable painter in her own right.

Mabel Scott Lauder Pryde was born in Edinburgh the daughter of the Headmaster of Edinburgh Ladies College and Barbara Lauder niece of the famous Scottish artists Robert Scott Lauder and James Eckford Lauder.

Ten of Mabel Nicholson's works feature on Art UK, the online home for every public art collection in the UK. They include Mabel’s telling portrait of the young Ben Nicholson, showing a marked resemblance to his mother’s expression in a painting of the Nicholson family by the great Sir William Orpen (shown here) now in the collection of National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Most of her works use her own children as her models in striking, characterful poses, sometimes in theatrical costumes. The family were avid theatre-goers who delighted in keeping their own costume box. The figure of Harlequin was a particularly favourite subject.

Tragically Mabel fell victim to the so-called but misnamed "Spanish Flu" epidemic in 1918. She was just 47.

James Pryde

Though, like that of his sister, James Pryde’s name is not recorded on the wall plaque, his working as an artist was highly regarded in his lifetime, once described in 1922 as "stupendous". After his death in 1941 his work as a painter received little subsequent attention until 1992, when an exhibition was held at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. His claim to fame as a contemporary of his brother-in-law, William was as one of the Beggarstaffs in the designing posters and other graphic work between 1894 and 1899.

Ben Nicholson O.M.

William Nicholson's eldest child, Ben became a towering figure of British abstract art. He studied at the Slade School of Art, 1910-11. He spent 1912 to 1914 in France and Italy and was in the United States in 1917-18. He married the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920. In 1931, Nicholson's relationship with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth resulted in the breakdown of his marriage to Winifred. He and Hepworth married in 1938 and divorced in 1951. Nicholson lived in London from 1932 to 1939, making several trips to Paris in 1932-3, visiting the studios of Picasso, Braque, Arp, Brancusi and Mondrian. From 1939 to 1958 he lived and worked in Cornwall, before moving to Switzerland. He returned to London in 1974.

Ben Nicholson's earliest paintings were "still lifes" influenced by those of his father. In the 1920s he began painting figurative and abstract works inspired by Post Impressionism and Cubism. He produced his first geometric and abstract reliefs in 1933. He first exhibited in 1919, at the Grosvenor Gallery and Grafton Galleries. His first one-man show was held at the Twenty-one Gallery, London in 1924. From 1924 to 1935 he was a member of the Seven and Five Society, and in 1933 he joined Unit One, founded by Paul Nash. In 1937 Nicholson, Naum Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art. Circle identified Nicholson with a group of like-minded artists and architects who wanted to apply 'constructivist' principles to public and private art, advocating mathematical precision, clean lines and an absence of ornament.

In 1952 Nicholson won first prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. He was awarded the first Guggenheim International painting prize in 1956, and the international prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1957. He received the Order of Merit in 1968.

Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held, including shows at the Venice Biennale and Tate Gallery in 1954-5, Kunsthalle, Berne in 1961, Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas in 1964, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo in 1978, and Tate Gallery in 1993-4. Helped by wide international exposure in British Council tours during the 1940s and 1950s and by the championing of the writer Herbert Read, Nicholson's work came to be seen, with Henry Moore's, as the quintessence of British modernism.

For the appreciation of art

Perhaps, now knowing a bit of history about the plaque on the White Cottage that commemorates both the artist father William and his son Ben might encourage you to enjoy some of their respective works - and indeed give greater recognition to Mabel Pride and the later wives of both William and Ben now that female artists gain more of the recognition they deserve. There are plenty of opportunities to appreciate them on line, in various galleries, or in numerous publications about them and their work.

Clearly, the commemorative plaque has accomplished its intentions of memorializing the relationship between this historic property of White Cottage, “Once the home of Sir William Nicholson, Artist 1872-1949 and Birthplace of Ben Nicholson O.M. Artist 1894-1982.”



Photo portrait of James Ferrier Pryde by John William Brooke watercolour on ivory, circa 1900 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Photo portrait of Sir William Nicholson in 1912 - his favourite photograph taken by Michael Arbuthnot in 1912 - © Newark Town Hall Museum & Art Gallery

Photo portrait of Ben Nicholson by Mabel Pryde oil on canvas, circa 1910-1914 © National Portrait Gallery, London

"A Bloomsbury Family" a painting of the Nicholson family by Sir William Orpen in the collection of National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Postcard collection of Rob Graham

Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report © Buckinghamshire County Council 2010


Postcard collection of

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