John Miller Nicholson – Douglas Head and Lighthouse
Viewed at a distance Nicholson’s watercolour of Douglas Head and Lighthouse appears to be a fresh and bright coastal scene. On closer inspection the work rewards the viewer with its remarkable quality of detail and its precise technical draughtsmanship. This type of work is of interest not only in terms of its artistic value, but is also important as an historic source in providing a visual record of Douglas Head in 1879.
An intriguing aspect of this painting is that it is of a view people would not normally have seen. It is as if we are sat in a boat with the artist at the mouth of Douglas Harbour, viewing Douglas Head. Several smaller pictures or stories emerge from the larger scene. A pair of seagulls squabble in the sea; a becalmed fishing boat with its crew stood up holding an oar; a small rowing boat with a single rower (incongruously wearing a bowler hat); a group of young men swimming and diving in the sea around the Port Skillion open-air sea baths; parties of tourists sitting along the headland. There is no single dominant subject matter for this work, instead Nicholson has produced a detailed snapshot of a typical summer afternoon, leaving us to choose what we want to focus upon
The painting shows the original Douglas Head lighthouse as built in 1832 to a design by David and Thomas Stevenson. The building on the top of the headland is the Douglas Head Hotel built in 1869 and enlarged over subsequent years. The tower in the centre is the original Douglas Head ‘herring tower’ built in 1811 as a warning to shipping to steer clear of the dangerous coastline.
Nicholson’s attention to detail is typical of the work he produced prior to going to Venice in 1882. The dramatic change in technique and style following his time in Venice can best be appreciated by comparing this work with the far more impressionistic view of Douglas Harbour painted in 1892. The precise detail of his early watercolours were replaced in his later works by a far looser style where capturing a sense of light, colour and atmosphere were more important.