Completed Portraits: British 19th C, Portraits: British 20th C, Scotland: Artists and Subjects 31 Could anyone tell us more about the artist John Watson Nicol (1856–1926)?

Topic: Subject or sitter

An earlier discussion identified this former soldier as James Roddick (1848–1928), who seems to have lived in Edinburgh and been a model for Scottish artists. I wonder if he also sat for John Watson Nicol in ‘The Revenge’, c.1908, which was in the Maas Gallery list of summer 2019?

Nicol was certainly a Scot though I know nothing of his practice/whereabouts. If the Grieve portrait shows Roddick in old age, as we think, there could be up to 20 years between the images. The gallery is aware of this speculation, but perhaps someone could provide evidence either way and give us more information about the artist.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The conclusion is that, while possible, it is unlikely and certainly indemonstrable that Drummer James Roddick also sat for the artist John Watson Nicol.

The painting’s original title has been made the primary title, with further information about the sitter added in brackets, viz. ‘The Old Soldier (Drummer James Roddick, 1848–1928, 92nd Gordon Highlanders, in Old Age)’. The date has been changed to c.1927. It was also found that Art UK’s image was distorted, so those proportions have been corrected.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Keith Dalby-Oldham,

John Watson Nicol was born in Edinburgh 12 January 1856 to Erskine Nichol and Janet (nee Watson) She was also known as Jessie. According to the 1861 census the family was living at Blenheim Place, Edinburgh and John had an older sister (Jane Margaret) aged 8 and an older brother, James Watson, aged 7. At some point thereafter he moved to London where he married Charlotte Ellen Cope, daughter of Charles West Cope ("Artist, Historical Painter" of Hyde Park Corner) in 1876. The marriage was registered in Kensington, which was also Charlotte's birthplace. By the 1881 census he and his wife are living at 3, Edwardes Square, Kensington, together with their sons John E (for Erskine which seems to be the name he used in life)) and Hamish. The 25yo John is described as an "Artist (Painter)" They employ four servants; a Cook, a Housemaid, a Kitchen Maid and a Nurse and have two boarders who are both engineers. In 1901 John is living at Park Cottage, Kensington with his son Erskine and two servants. The housekeeper's husband also lives there. Charlotte is presumably staying elsewhere on the night of the census. They are at the same address in 1911, with a third servant. Erskine by now is elsewhere. Charlotte died on 22 April 1926 and is buried in Kensington. John followed not long after on 31 May 1926. His death was registered in Hampstead. Probate was granted to his second son Hamish. The estate was valued at £2794 16s 3d Hope this helps.

Keith Dalby-Oldham,

Further to the above, Erskine, son of John, emigrated to the US in 1902. He married Joan Webber and died in Ramsay, Minnesota, where he had lived much of his life, in 1961. The US censuses describe him variously as a "Paving cutter" or "Laborer". Hamish became a surgeon. He died in 1955 on a visit to Midlothian but is buried in Hampstead. He left an estate of some £24,000 to his widow, Olivia Florence.

Osmund Bullock,

Could I make a pedantic plea for care when reading/transcribing biographical details? I'm far far from guiltless myself, but even minor and peripheral information on Art Detective should be as reliable as we can make it - for years to come anything read here may be taken as evidence, such is the power of the internet. So to adapt the old carpenter's adage of 'measure it twice, cut it once', please 'check it twice, post it once'.

John Watson Nicol's father-in-law, Charles West Cope, lived at 19 Hyde Park GATE (South), not Hyde Park Corner - they are not the same, and HPGS was and is a quiet, wealthy street of substantial houses near the Albert Hall, not a busy traffic junction over a mile away! Also John Watson Nicol himself lived at 3 Edwardes PLACE, not Square - again a different address, albeit much closer by, and the houses were and are bigger (and were higher-status) than those in the square. Arguably even more important, I can find no evidence (even in original Scottish records) that John Watson Nicol or his father Erskine ever spelled their surname with an 'h' - I would hate this website to be the source of a belief that it is sometimes found as 'Nichol'. Equally, though I'm unclear of the purpose or repute of Wikidata, it is surely most undesirable that false data is fed into it - perhaps you could edit what you've entered, Andy?

I wonder, too, if Marion might consider editing out these errors on AD (and note that 'Nichol' also appears in Pieter's intro) - if so, then this post of mine can be removed.

Louis Musgrove,

The question being asked is whether Drummer Roddick modelled for John Watson Nicol. Having just looked at Nicol's paintings on the internet I notice a moustachioed man regularly appears in various guises.This man could easily be Drummer Roddick-- but as to whether it is, I haven't got a clue.

Andy Mabbett,

Wikidata is a linked-data repository that underpins Wikipedia, but also has much more content than is found in Wikipedia - hence JWN has an entry on Wikidata but not (yet) in Wikipedia. in particulr, it includes what is becoming a catalogue of all publicly-displayed art not only in the UK, but internationally, with an entry for each artist and each collection also.

Osmund Bullock,

Thanks, Andy (and for the family data tweak).

Keith Dalby-Oldham,

The error of "Square" for "Place" is entirely mine. I will defer on the point of Hyde Park Gate versus Corner - the original manuscript is barely legible. I will leave it to others to research, as I did, the original census documents, marriage records, death registers and registers of probateof the period and draw their own conclusions as to the consistent or inconsistent spelling of the artist's surname over the years (and generations).

Osmund Bullock,

I think it's almost 100% consistent as 'Nicol', Keith; of all the many dozens of original document images between his birth in 1856 and his death and probate in 1926, and including all his RA exhibiting (see below), the only exception I could find was the Kensington electoral register for 1879 which lists him as 'John Watson Nicholls'. Your biography was nevertheless invaluable, and I was very grateful for it - without it the search for the right man would have been very much longer.

There is a bit more about John W Nicol on the 'Lochaber No More' page of the Fleming Collection website: It includes the information that his father, Erskine, was also an artist (as was his brother, another Erskine [Edward]), and that he and JWN moved to London in 1863 when John was seven. This is confirmed by Graves (RA Exhibitors) - Erskine Senr (ARA & RSA) exhibited from London addresses between 1863 & 1879, after which he returned to Scotland. See

JWN in turn exhibited at the RA from London addresses in 33 of the 43 years between 1876 & 1918 (plus a final isolated one in 1924). There are a few two-year gaps (including 1907-08), so I suppose it's possible he painted 'The Revenge' in Scotland; but even in the years he didn't exhibit, censuses (e.g. 1901) and numerous electoral rolls and directories show him in London throughout. So I think on balance it's unlikely that the Edinburgh-based Roddick worked as his model, though not impossible.

Osmund Bullock,

The RA catalogues, electoral rolls and directories enable much more detail to be deduced about Nicol's movements in London. In 1876 he first exhibited from (and was presumably living at) his father's address at 24 Dawson Place, Notting Hill Gate; then after his marriage the same year he moved south to a house (144) in the newly-built Finborough Road, backing on to the 40 acres of Brompton cemetery in Kensington. Early in 1879 he moved with his family a mile north again to 3 Edwardes Place, a late Georgian terrace set back from Kensington High Street. They were there for five years, but in 1884 made another shorter move to 4 The Studios, Stratford Avenue, just a half a mile SE.

In 1887 the family moved again, this time a bit further to a wonderful small house called Park Cottage in a green oasis behind Pelham St, South Kensington, where John built a studio. In the 1980s this was united with its neigbouring property, Park House, to form one of the most desirable houses in London, sitting in half an acre of garden a hundred yards from South Ken tube: Unsurprisingly the Nicols' stay there was longer...30 years, in fact.

In 1918 they made their final move to 8 Well Rd, Hampstead - three minutes' walk from the Heath, passing Constable's house on the way. JWN had pretty much retired, and it was there that he died eight years later.

Keith Dalby-Oldham,

My sincere apologies to Osmund. Yesterday was definitely not my day! Charlotte, John's wife, died in 1936, not 1926. It was John's oldest brother Erskine E, who died in 1926 (13 May, just over two weeks before John).

It is odd that there appears to be no obvious newspaper death notice or obituary for him. Also that the otherwise good ODNB entry on his father includes no identification of him by name, or as another painter, or say which of his father's two wives was his mother (the first, d. 1863). The only apparent snippet in BLNA is a death notice in the London Evening Standard of 19 July 1904 for what looks like a family tragedy:

'At Cairo, 17th July. John Erskine Nicol. aged 27. eldest son of John Watson Nicol. typhoid fever.'

Osmund Bullock,

The Fleming Collection, whose biog of Nicol was previously noted, is actually part of Art UK. Their fairly substantial (for Art UK) description of 'Lochaber No More' is really not very helpful: It states (with no explanation) that "...Nicol depicts this atrocity with a high level of emotional intensity...". Only a tiny proportion of the people Art UK wishes to attract would have the foggiest idea what 'atrocity' is meant and how it might relate to the painting – even I thought at first that they (and thus the artist) must be referring to the aftermath of some particular event like the Glencoe Massacre.

In fact it's the Highland Clearances that’s being referred to, and they consisted of hundreds or thousands of cruel episodes over many, many decades. Atrocious they indeed were, but it's slightly odd to describe them as an apparently single 'atrocity' – and if 70 words are allowed about the painting, surely they can be more informative than that?

Osmund Bullock,

This Drummer Roddick part-reboot happily gives me a chance to share further details about Walter Grieve's portrait study. Looking through the Glasgow Institute of The Fine Arts exhibition catalogues at the NAM after the previous discussion had closed, I found the work listed and illustrated in the catalogue of the 1927 annual exhibition (the year before Roddick’s death) – see attached. Its original title was 'The Old Soldier’, which ideally should (subject to Collection approval) become its primary title on Art UK; the current, more informative one could perhaps be incorporated in brackets afterwards.

Kieran Owens,

For those with access to the British Newspaper Archive, the Belfast Weekly News of the 7th June 1906 gives a very detailed illustrated account of James Roddick's military service history. It is a poignant reminder of how bravery is rewarded at the time but which is relatively soon forgotten with the advance of old age and the cessation of conflicts in particular theatres of war. The apparent dishevelled state of the sitter in this discussion's portrait hardly shows a grateful nation's long-term care and respect for a man who personally contributed so much for its bellicose triumphs.

Kieran Owens,

Attached is the (reformatted) article on James Roddick from the Belfast Weekly News of 7th June 1906. The bottom half is a little light so I will transcribe the whole article over the next few days for ease of understanding. The last line of the piece underscores the point that I made above about a grateful nation's treatment of the old soldier.

There are two lines on JWN, as follows, on the 'Artist Biographies' website at
but I don't have a subscription to see if its full entry has any more:

'Little-known son of Scottish painter Erskine Nicol who trained with John Pettie and probably with his father. He was elected ROI in 1888 and also showed at the RBSA, GI, MAFA, RA, and RSA.' (I assume 'RBSA' is a typo intending Royal Society of British Artists but 'GI'eludes me.) There is also apparently an entry on him in the 'Dictionary of British Book Illustrators...' by Simon Houfe (Antique Collector's Club, Woodbriddge: 1978), should anyone have that to hand. What is also apparent is that the ODNB entry on his father may be adrift on the latter's children, unless only counting those who survived to adulthood: it says he had 'one son [i.e. JWN] and a daughter' by Janet (nee Watson, d. 1863). but the 1861 census shows John Watson to be the youngest of three Margaret (then 8) and James Watson (then 7). Erskine Edward Nicol (b. c.1869) also an artist -or at least an 'art student' in the 1891 census, was JWN's half-brother, the elder son of Erskine's second marriage to Margaret Mary Wood in 1865: his younger brother 'Percy W.' (b. c.1872) is noted as a 19-year-old 'medical student' in 1891. ODNB says they had a sister, not so far spotted in a brief Ancestry search.
Both Erskine Edward and Percy were with their 'half-aunt-by-prior marriage' Helen Watson, in Colinton, Edinburgh at the 1881 census so it looks like it was a pretty integrated and sprawling family.

If we can perhaps just continue this string until the biographical details on JWN clarify for a short summary that would be useful, though I rather agree with a comment of Osmund's above that any clear use of Drummer Roddick as a model by JWN looks unlikely to be firmly demonstrable.

Martin Hopkinson,

GI will be the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts

Martin Hopkinson,

Houfe p. 243 mentions that Nicol also exhibited in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition[s] and that he worked in France, as well as in Scotland. Illustrations by him appeared in Good Words [1890] and Black & White [1896]. He is not in Alan Horn.

Barbara Bryant has suggested that, having raised the query as to whether Drummer Roddick might also have acted as a model for John Watson Nicol (1856-1926), that I wind this up.

I think the conclusion has to be that, while possible, it is unlikely and certainly undemonstrable given that Nicol largely operated in London.

That said, Nicol himself (unlike his father, Erskine) is someone of whom - and especially for a good painter - there is little on record and the exercise has produced an outline biography, summarised on the attachment below: as a whole, the Nicols look like a talented lot, and not just in art. Many thanks to everyone who has contributed.

1 attachment

The other thing required here is for the Gordon Highlanders' Museum to consider restoring the original title of the Grieve portrait of Roddick, as now discovered by Osmund: see his note above of 13 November (at 21.59) with the suggestion that it be : 'The Old Soldier’ (Drummer James Roddick, 1848–1928, 92nd Gordon Highlanders, in Old Age).

Since it is apparently a finished work, shown at the Glasgow Institute annual show (no. 205) in 1927, with a price of £80 on it, 'Study of' in the current Art UK title could perhaps be dropped. Perhaps the collection could be asked to look at this.

Osmund Bullock,

And of course the date, too, can be changed from 'early 20th C' to 'c.1927'.

Since we're on the subject of the Grieve portrait, there's one other thing I wanted to raise. The measurements given for the painting represent a pretty standard British 30 x 25 in. canvas (or a little less). Taking the measurements as given,the proportions are 1.21: 1, which is very close to the 1.2:1 of an exact 30 x 25. But the image(s) shown on AD/AUK measure 1.4:1, which is substantially different. A little bit of this may be down to cropping at the sides, but just compare it with the photo from the Glasgow Institute catalogue. My image of the latter is far from perfect, but one can still immediately see that AUK's one has been stretched vertically, giving Roddick a much thinner face and skinnier, less powerful physique. See attachment.

I would be nice to think this is just a one-off problem, but in fact I seem to remember it being noted in other paintings we have looked at on AD; if so, it is rather unfortunate, since the prime purpose of the PCF is (or was) to give public collections the opportunity to show us what 'our' paintings look like. Of course, as Art UK it seems to have acquired some different priorities of late...but I nevertheless hope that displaying a badly distorted image of an artwork would still be thought undesirable.

1 attachment

The proportions of the image were corrected this morning. That amendment, as well as the updated title and date, should pull through to the website later today.

Thanks for updating the title Marion: the visual proportions of the image still look the same (i.e. stretched vertically) at the time of this note but perhaps that's still in process.

Just a small PS on John Watson Nicol that at least one example of his work was reproduced in 'The Graphic' in 1880, shown in this link:

(With thanks to the contact who referred me to it, having given it to the Met some years ago.)

Can we now close this?

The Gordon Highlanders Museum,

May I please pass along my thanks to all who been involved in sharing this fascinating information on this digital platform. How wonderful to be able to date the painting to more or less the year it was painted and presented as a finished work. It is brilliant to be able to also see the painting as listed in the catalogue with its intended title. In light of the facts as presented here I have now amended our own catalogue to reflect the changes that have been uncovered here.

I have also included for interest below a photograph of the painting in situ as it is displayed in our Museum at present. It currently hangs on the wall in our Museum Administrator's Office where it can be seen and admired on a daily basis by members of staff, museum volunteers and visiting members of the Regimental Association on a daily basis.

It is a beloved piece and I am delighted that we have been able to retrieve some of the story behind the creation of the painting that otherwise would have been lost to time. Thank you again to all involved for their time and consideration of this piece.