MY earliest recollection of my grandfather, James Nicol, comes from a trip to Britain when I was very small. Seeing him and my grandmother was a special treat, because we lived in New York and they lived far away in a place called South Africa. On this trip, however, we were all visiting their native Scotland. Sitting in a hotel dining room, surrounded by what seemed like acres of white linen tablecloths and armories-full of silver cutlery, my grandfather taught me European table manners (fork upside down).
That I remember him in this way seems right, for he always represented to me the epitome of what a gentleman should be. For a long time, the word gentleman also had a literal connotation for me, because James Nicol was, in fact, a gentle man: quiet but sociable, kind and observant, never the center of attention but always a lively presence. And he had style. He was a natty, if not flashy, dresser—his hats smart, his ties crisply knotted. I was not surprised to learn that in the war he had known and worked with Sean Connery. I could imagine the two of them over drinks and cigarettes, their underlying Scots toughness somehow making them more rather than less sophisticated than their effete English counterparts.
Like so many Scots down the centuries he emigrated in search of adventure and better opportunities. He certainly found both in Johannesburg, becoming the art director and partner of an advertising agency. He did well enough to retire early and pursue his dream of painting full time.
That’s how I knew him, as someone who worked behind an easel. Certain things about his painting became clear to me, even at an early age. He loved landscapes, still lifes, and nudes. Though he lived halfway across the world, his paintings hung on our walls.
Portraits were something more fraught for him. It was clear to me that he was daunted by the challenge of getting a likeness, not because he was timid but because his standards were so high. And yet he wanted so very much to paint his grandchildren. I have his unfinished portrait of my sister, done when she was about six. I also watched him paint it, transfixed by the way his pale blue eyes would dart back and forth between Kathryn and the canvas. The intensity of his concentration stirred within me something close to awe. He abandoned the painting, as he did a number of portraits. Gazing at it today—even in its unfinished state—I see my sister’s heart and soul. No painting of me, if one was ever undertaken, survives.
As I grew older, I began to realize that my grandfather painted in oil in the style of Impressionism. He loved Renoir and Monet, to be sure, but he also championed some of the lesser-known Impressionists, including Sisley and Caillebotte, artists whose work I had to unearth in libraries.
At some point I began to question—perhaps even to become critical—of his working in what I thought of as an outmoded style. But then he would do something that would catch me off guard. When I was ten, for example he spent nine months living in Florence in order to study under the disciples of the great Annigoni. He would have been about sixty at the time. They told him he needed to work in egg tempera, a medium he had to learn from scratch.
Then, in his late seventies and eighties, his palette underwent a remarkable change. He reenacted the movement from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism. Suddenly his colors lightened, moving increasingly toward the purples, pinks, and light greens of late Monet and the favorite of his old age, Pierre Bonnard. He began to experiment with paintings dominated by a single color—using only shades of red or of green to render an entire still life. One day, visiting him in Massachusetts, where he and my grandmother had moved to be near my mother, I looked at the easel, only to see a canvas in the style of Henri Matisse, with simplified planes of bolder primary colors. The old sense of awe returned.
Since he didn’t exhibit his work much in his later years, I don’t know how many people knew what was happening on his easel. I tried to express my admiration to him, but always felt awkward and shy about it. In turn, he had a reticence about discussing Image with me. But our love and our pride in one another leapt over the gaps in our conversation.
There came a time when he could no longer hold a paintbrush and eventually a time when he had to go to a nursing home. When I visited him there, I felt stifled by the institutional blandness of his room, and mourned the lack of beauty around him. My family understandably was far too preoccupied simply meeting his daily needs to give much thought to matters of aesthetics, but on that trip I managed to get to a print shop in Boston. They had one print left by Pierre Bonnard, The Open Window. It shows a domestic interior with a woman asleep in a chair and an impish black cat in the lower right corner. But the painting is really of the window and what lies beyond it. The reds, oranges, and blues of the interior are bisected by a large vertical shutter in white. The glory of the painting, however, is the shimmering foliage of the trees outside the window, a canopy of green against a pale blue sky. My grandfather was not someone who spoke publicly or confidently about religion, but in some profound way I think that Bonnard painting served as an icon for him—something for him to gaze upon, in his last days, with those pale blue eyes.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.