Joseph Nicholls, sometimes recorded as Nichols or Nickols, was one of the best of the English comparatively obscure painters of eighteenth century London views. In the 1740s topographical art in Britain received an invigorating influence from Italy, a consequence of the increasing popularity of the Grand Tour. The most famous of the Italian artists were Canaletto and Antonio Joli and the former’s paintings had started to reach these shores in the late 1720s. Canaletto himself arrived in London in the summer of 1746. George Vertue, in his Notebooks in the Walpole Society writes: “…came to London from Venice the Famous Painter of Views Cannalletti …the Multitude of his works done abroad for English noblemen and Gentlemen has procurd him great reputation and his great merit and excellence in that way, he is much esteemed…” His “Whitehall and the Privy Garden from Richmond House” and “The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House”, both magnificent paintings and now at Goodwood, had a marked effect.
Canaletto’s paintings of “A View of Westminster from the Terrace of Somerset House” and “The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City” were both engraved in 1751 and there can be no doubt that these engravings acted as a further stimulus to contemporary and later artists to depict similar compositions.
The English painters Samuel Scott, William James and William Marlow picked up on this style and there were several others of varying ability such as Samuel Wale, Francis Hardin, Thomas Priest and Herbert Pugh who were commissioned to paint views of a city rapidly expanding in size, influence and wealth. There is evidence though that Scott was already painting topographical views of London before the arrival of Canaletto with a drawing of Westminster Abbey and Hall from the River in the British Museum confidently dated to 1738 providing the evidence for this. There is also speculation that some of these painters utilised a camera lucida or other such optical devices which would explain some of the occasional distorted buildings, even apparent in an artist of Scott’s ability.
Joseph Nicholls preceded these more illustrious first three named artists and his pictures show a good topographical ability and feeling of atmosphere for the Thames. Grant writes of him that “…there is a delicacy and finesse in his work, unusual in this type…he displayed a capacity also for foliage and scenery.”
There is comparatively little known about Nicholls. He was from Bengeo in Hertfordshire, the son of a husbandman, and is believed to have been apprenticed to the Painter-Stainer Thomas Batten on 5th August 1713. He was certainly painting London views by 1738 as two of his paintings - “Stocks Market” and “Fountain in the Temple” – were engraved in that year. There are a pair of views of Twickenham in the Mellon Collection at Yale, one showing Pope’s Villa and the other Orlean’s House, one of which is dated 1726, but which was probably painted after 1755. Another painting, “View of the Thames”, is dated 1748 but these signed and dated works are scarce. Other examples of his work include “The Thames at Lambeth Palace” and “Charing Cross with the Statue of King Charles I and Northumberland House”.
Nicholls also worked as an illustrator and these engravings can be seen in Captain Johnson’s “Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, etc” published in 1734. There is also an oil painting depicting a capriccio Italian scene which has his signature on it which was probably a commission work in England done from another painting(s) or engraving(s).