Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 19th C 45 Who was Mrs Nicol, and can we work out the artist of this portrait?

Mrs Nicol
Topic: Subject or sitter

Is anything more known about this painting, either about the sitter, or the artist?


Could the sitter be one of the two (successive) wives of the prolific Scottish painter Erskine Nicol (1825-1904), painted by her husband? Judged from her hair and costume, the first wife, Janet Watson, who married Nicol in 1851 and died in 1863 would be the more likely candidate. Nicol married his second wife, Margaret Mary Wood, in 1865 and she outlived him.


judging by the 1840s coiffure, cap, ribbons and plump figure, isn't it more likely the sitter is Nichol's mother?

Jacinto Regalado,

Lou Taylor should help to narrow down the date based on fashion.

Jacob Simon,

As so often, we are discussing a painting with insufficient information.

What is the source of the title of the picture, Mrs Nicol, given by the collection?

Is the painting unlined? A photograph of the painting in its frame would be invaluable, as would one of the frame and canvas from the reverse.

Marcie Doran,

In my opinion, the painter is Heinrich von Angeli, an Austrian portrait painter (1840-1925).

According to Wikipedia:
Heinrich Anton von Angeli (July 8, 1840, Ödenburg (now Sopron, in Hungary) – October 21, 1925, Vienna) was an Austrian history and portrait painter. His works included portraits of Queen Victoria, her eldest daughter Victoria, Princess Royal, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Benjamin Disraeli, Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener,[1] and two of Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom.[2]

Several of his works are in the British Royal Collection, including portraits of members of the British, German, and Russian royal families.[1] His work is also in the Wallace Collection[3] and the Victoria and Albert Museum.[4].”

I am attaching two screenprints depicting two paintings of Queen Victoria.
1. From a Christie’s auction house sale in 1999: “Baron Heinrich von Angeli (1840-1925)
Queen Victoria
signed and dated 'H v Angeli/1877.' (lower left)
oil on panel
10.7/8 x 8.5/8in. (27.5 x 22cm.)
2. From the Royal Collection Trust: “HEINRICH VON ANGELI (1840-1925)
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) Signed and dated 1875
Oil on canvas | 147.1 x 98.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405021”

In the first painting, note the similar facial expression and composition, the hair, the sombre colour palette, and the muddy brown background with little detail.

In the second painting, note the similar facial expression and composition, the hair, the sombre colour palette, the muddy brown background, the shape and position of the hands, and also the similarities in the white linen cloth that the women are holding.

The woman in the mystery painting wears a ribbon bonnet that is likely from an earlier era - she might not be someone who followed fashion. The painter might have prepared this painting in order to prove to someone that he could paint Queen Victoria in an appropriate manner.

2 attachments
Marcie Doran,

My apologies, the first screenprint should be this one.

1 attachment
Jacob Simon,

Without further input from the collection, as indicated above, I suspect that it will be extremely difficult to make progress on this discussion, "Who was Mrs Nicol, and can we work out the artist of this portrait?"

On that basis, I propose to recommend that this discussion be closed at the end of the month if further contributions, with evidence, are not forthcoming from participants, and if the collection is unable to comment on the source of the title of the picture, Mrs Nicol, and ideally provide a photograph of the reverse as suggested in my post of 8 May.

Jacob, I have followed up on an email I sent the Collection on 10 May to see if they might be able to provide some answers and images. David

Kieran Owens,

Marcie, having myself been through the Art Detective proposal process for many years, may I respectfully offer the following personal and well-intended advice. Expressions of a firm opinion as to who an artist or a sitter might be are of relatively little value in these discussion, other than to hopefully point contributors in a relevant direction for further exploration. The crucial contributions to these discussion come when, at the very least, some fragments of verifiable evidence can be presented which can confirm an attribution or an identification, ones that subsequently lead to an overwhelming conclusion that is accepted by Art UK and the specific collection. Consequently, do not be disheartened if a subjectively expressed opinion is not greeted with some (or any) enthusiastic response from the community of contributors to these investigations. Finding factual proof really is the focus of most of our collective efforts and is by far the more rewarding endeavour.

Marcie Doran,

Thank you for the advice, Kieran. Your comments on the various works have greatly impressed me. I do realize that I have been much too enthusiastic about searching for clues to the works. Yes, you are correct - I have sometimes been disheartened. I have appreciated the support that I have had in other discussions. It was kind of you to write.

Many thanks to Lou Taylor for emailing information on the dress (sorry, Lou, I can't find your University of Washington Library fashion plate, but the other three are linked below):

'All I can do in terms of dating the clothes in this portrait is guess...due to her age and to the longevity of style of the cap she wears. This lady is elderly with greying hair. It could be that as Marcie says, her hair style, with smooth bands over the ears, and with cap worn at the back of the head, with roses and ribbons over the ears and lace lappets hanging down, are styles once but not currently fashionable. This is a style popular all through the 1840s. I have it on fashion plates from 1841-1847 (linked below). However, her dress with rather wide sleeves, worn with white detachable undersleeves tied inside, with lace cuffs, is in a style more typical of c.1850.'

'Dinner dresses, home morning dress and evening full dress, August 1841' https://bit.ly/3Bdi1lp

'Evening dress and public promenade dress, January 1847'

'Undersleeves', c.1850, American

Jacob Simon,

I pick up from my post of 15/07/2021. In the absence of further input from the collection, it will be extremely difficult to make progress on this discussion, "Who was Mrs Nicol, and can we work out the artist of this portrait?" As such, I recommend that this discussion be closed.

Jacob, our new contact at the Collection has already replied and they are going to look into both questions and so I will report back here as soon as a reply is obtained. David


Hello All

apologies for delay in responding to this thread. David Saywell has been in touch with myself as point of contact for the collections. I will be in touch shortly answering the above as I can.



Marcie Doran,

The artist William W. Nicol (active 1848 – 1868) was the brother of the Scottish geologist James Nicol (1810 – 1879)(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Nicol), according to the ‘Southern Reporter’ of August 26, 1937. Note that two of this artist's five works on Art UK (https://tinyurl.com/ynyzhtaa) portray his brother. The artist's full name was William Walker Nicol.

The detailed record of William Nicol's death, from the Scotlandspeople website, shows that he was born in about 1813 and passed away at 15 Blacket Place, Edinburgh, on June 5, 1893. His parents were James Nicol and his wife Agnes Nicol (née Walker).

An inscription on the back of Nicol's painting 'Quiet’ (1860) (https://tinyurl.com/bdzce5xa) identifies the sitters as “M.N. et M.W.J.N.” I think the child is a boy and that the inscription likely reads “M.N. et W.W.J.N.”. The sitters were possibly the artist's wife and son – Marion Nicol (née Ballantyne)(unknown – 1880) and William Walker James Nicol (1855 – 1929). There is a Wikipedia page for Dr. William Walker James Nicol FRSE. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._W._J._Nicol.

I have attached an image of the record of William Nicol’s death and a letter to the editor written by his son in 1924.

Marcie Doran,

If, as suggested by Oliver Perry, the artist was William W. Nicol (active 1848 – 1868), a strong contender for sitter is the wife of James Nicol – Alexandrina Anne Macleay Nicol (née Downie)(1813/1814 – 1901).

Note that the intricate gold brooch worn by ‘Mrs. Nicol’ is very similar to the one worn by ‘M.N.’ in Nicol's painting 'Quiet’ (1860) https://tinyurl.com/bdzce5xa.

As reported in the 'Aberdeen Press and Journal' of June 4, 1901, Alexandrina Nicol bequeathed a portrait of her husband to the University of Aberdeen. https://tinyurl.com/bdzce5xa.

I have attached the probate entry for Alexandrina Nicol, the news article from 1901, and an extract from the ‘Nicoll/Snow & Doe/White Family Tree’ on Ancestry.

Jacob Simon,

Marcie's brooch comparison is very helpful. But not enough in itself to make an attribution. Lets hope the collection follows up its 18 January response before long. It'll be helpful to know where the work title comes from and to see images of the front with frame and the reverse.

Jacob, as I have been in contact today with our Art Detective contact on other public discussions, I will follow up on this one too once as soon as I hear back. Regards, David

Marcie Doran,

Here is an update to my most recent comment. The new information is disappointing.

The will (1901) of Alexandrina Anne Macleay Nicol (née Downie) (1813–1901) mentions two paintings: a painting of her husband James Nicol (1801–1879) and a painting of her mother Margaret Macleay (1795–1861) by Kenneth Macleay (1802–1878). She bequeathed her mother's painting to Kenneth's daughter Louisa Menie Deans (née Macleay). Louisa's will (1921) does not mention a painting.

Although interesting, I am not convinced by the similarity of the gold brooch or the possible attribution to William W Nicol. The 'Mrs Nicol' portrait in question seems to be by a very different hand. Nicol's active dates start in 1848 and speaks of an artist getting started in the mid-nineteenth century... whilst this portrait in terms of its style and the fashions of its sitter belong to the conventions of the 1840s

Unless the collection have now come back with new information on the source of the title or a photograph of the reverse, I suggest we close the discussion in the absence of any conclusive evidence towards a new attribution.

Marcie Doran,

It's just a guess but perhaps this is the portrait of Margaret Macleay (1795–1861) by Kenneth Macleay (1795–1861) that was mentioned in the will of her daughter Alexandrina Anne Macleay Nicol (née Downie). Perhaps the donor didn't know the name of Alexandrina's mother - it isn't mentioned in Alexandrina's will.

Here are Macleay's works on Art UK:

The dresses in the following work remind me of the lace in the portrait 'Mrs Nicol'.

My composites are based on two watercolours by Macleay.

The image used in composite 1:

Ruth, last year a new contact at ANGUSalive expressed an interest in helping with Art Detective enquiries. The new year is a good time to try to obtain the information we need before we take a decision to close this as unresolved.

The collection has replied that although the portrait was accessioned in 1979, it was likely donated several years before and the acquisition information had probably been lost by that time. A photograph of the front of the frame is attached, but it will take more people to help photograph the back.

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Jacinto Regalado,

The frame would appear to be the original one, but this is for Jacob (Simon) to address. I hope it helps.

Jacob Simon,

Frame is a good compo (=composition=plaster based) example from the 1830s or a few years later or earlier. The appearance of the canvas is consistent with an unlined painting. A photo of the reverse of the canvas with the frame could be helpful.

Jacob Simon,

I should add that the frame is surely original to the painting.

Jacob Simon,

Thanks to ANGUSalive for the frame photo. But as Ruth, group leader, says (20/07/2022), "Unless the collection ... comes back with new information on the source of the title or a photograph of the reverse, I suggest we close the discussion in the absence of any conclusive evidence towards a new attribution."

Jacob Simon,

I have used the British Newspaper Archive to look at local papers for Forfar and Montrose to look for a report of the gift of our portrait. But without success.

I suppose that it is possible that the portrait was exhbited at the Royal Scottish Academy. But I lack access to a sequence of their 1840s catalogues so I cannot check. In any case a long shot.

Jacob Simon,

I tried searching online for: "Mrs Nicol" Forfar Montrose. A result stemming from the National Library of Scotland online Post Office directories interested me:

"ARBROATH LADIES CLOTHING SOCIETY— 1840. Mrs Nicol, Secretary and Treasurer."

Now I could see our portrait as depicting such a women!

Jacob Simon,

ANGUSalive has a particular system of inventory numbering, it would seem. A, F and M prefixes are apparent. Does A indicate pictures from Arbroath, F Forfar and M Montrose?

Our portrait has an A prefix.

Jacob Simon,

Yes, our portrait is listed in Arbroath Art Gallery in "British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections: An Index of British and Irish Oil Paintings by Artists Born Before 1870 in Public and Institutional Collections in the United Kingdom and Ireland" by Christopher Wright and Catherine May Gordon.

So the reference above to Mrs Nicol as Secretary and Treasurer of the Arbroath Ladies Clothing Society in 1840 is worth following up as meaning potentially that our portrait could depict a woman in public life and charitable work of the time.

Jacob Simon,

Angus Archives contains the following, according to a guide to Scottish archives:

"Ladies Clothing Society of Arbroath: minutes, 1840-1927 [MS 62]"

If I can, I'll try asking unless someone comes back in the next three days to say that they have already been along this route. If there is a local historian, even better.

Jacob, that seems like the first glimpse of light in an otherwise impenetrable mystery, particularly if your research tracks back to Erskine Nicol's family.

The catalogue entry for the sketch by Nicol (Louis 07/01/24) indicates that Nicol was in Ireland from 1846-51 - so if it is him (and there did seem to be some resonance between the sketch and the portrait in question) this would help us date it to the period before he went or the period after his return.

Jacob Simon,

Thanks to the collection for images.

An unlined canvas, long undisturbed, in the original frame. At the right of the reverse (the left looking from the front) the artist turned the canvas over by about an inch (hence the tack holes) in formatting the composition.

Jacob Simon,

Odd. Immediately above, Marion's post was actually made BEFORE my one but as I view it at 10.53 it comes AFTER my post.

Jacob, sorry, it is weird. I expect my attachments were still loading while the text had been processed.

The labels are just the collection's own, which state the accession number and ‘Mrs Nicol’, and that they belong to the Angus Council Museum Collection. The one on the bottom right says ‘HL’ but they do not know what this means.

Jacob Simon,

I did ask Angus Archives, part of ANGUSalive, concerning the document in their care:

"Ladies Clothing Society of Arbroath: minutes, 1840-1927 [MS 62]"

They would charge for examining it on my behalf for this discussion (which I flagged up). However I'm not willing to pay ANGUSalive to research a portrait they own. I leave it at that.

Jacinto Regalado,

Quite so, Jacob. It is up to the collection to review or make available relevant documentation in its holdings.

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