Born Lochend Road, Leith; died Feltham, Middlesex, 8 March. Painter in oil and watercolour; genre, often of a humerous character, figurative subjects. After a spell as a house painter’s apprentice he entered the Trustee’s Academy 1838 studying under William Allan from whom he inherited a strong tradition of expression based upon the work of Wilkie. In 1846, after a brief spell as drawing master at Leith High School, went to Ireland obtaining by chance an appointment as an art master in Dublin. Whilst there he developed the humorous side of his work, later becoming the most humorous painter Scotland has produced. It was in the cabins and potato patches of Ireland that he first found the material for his lively sketches. ‘You turn to a picture by Nicol, as you go to see a favourite comedian, expecting to laugh heartily, and you are seldom disappointed’. He saw the comic in every situation and, although overfond of the Irish man of farce, his insight into certain types of character was great. A prolific painter, so that the quality of work varied. But the influence of his Irish visit lasted with him throughout his career. His paintings are less fine than Thomas Faed’s but the expressions he gave to his characters are more distinctive. ‘His brush seldom portrayed beauty..but his adroit touch is singularly happy in its application to the suntanned faces of pronounced physiognomy and dilapidated costume’ [McKay]. Towards the 1860s the subject of his paintings became more Scottish, with thinner shadows and more umber and a well conceived light and shade veil. All this was exemplified in his diploma picture ‘The Day after the Fair’. Settled in London 1862 but continued to make annual visit to Ireland to study his subjects at first hand. Later, when he travelled less, he turned more to a Scottish genre, working for a time in Pitlochry. In 1885 he retired finally to Feltham, Middlesex, where he died. In his early career he had been attacked for the strong element of caricature in his work, but this was replaced as his similarity to Wilkie became apparent. A good example of this is ‘The Rent Day, Signing the New Lease’ 1868, now in Leicester AG, redolent of Wilkie’s ‘Letter of Introduction’, in the setting of the figures and the treatment of still life objects. Occasionally he turned to subjects in which more profound levels of human emotion were involved such as immigration, emigration and shipwreck, exemplified by ‘The Missing Boat’ 1876 now at the Royal Holloway College.
Elected ARSA 1855, RSA 1859, ARA 1868.