Words - 20th Century Greats - Horace W. Nicholls


20th Century Greats series (1998)

Horace W. Nicholls (1867 – 1941)

A master of his craft, artist-photographer Horace W. Nicholls, ‘hit the ground running’ at the dawn of the new century. He was a towering example of enterprise, creative commitment and commercial acumen.

The eldest son of Arthur N. Nicholls, a professional photographer, Horace grew up in Sandown, Isle of Wight, where his father had opened a studio. At fourteen, Horace was apprenticed to his eccentric papa, who believed that a photographer was first and foremost an artist.

Three years later, responding to the urge to travel he worked for a chemist in Huddersfield. Soon, his wanderlust grew and through a newspaper advertisement, he took a job as a photographer in Chile!

Returning the UK in 1889 he found employment at a studio in Windsor. Restless again, he travelled to South Africa. After a long-range love affair with the cousin of his former employer, he returned briefly to marry in 1893. Then, sailing immediately for South Africa with his bride, Nicholls managed an established portrait and commercial business in Johannesburg.

For six years they and their children enjoyed ‘the good life’, but as the century ended, the Boer War began. Sending his family to Capetown for safety, Nicholls set out with his equipment for Ladysmith as a war correspondent.

The blossoming of enterprise
As the new century dawned, free from the limitations of the studio, the conflict gave Nicholls the opportunities to exploit his artistic skills, as well as dramatising the war.

Excellent at self-promotion, he was not an ‘average’ war correspondent. At Ladysmith before the Boer siege began, Nicholls worked at break-neck speed. As the battle raged, every image he created conformed to his dual aims.

With insider knowledge of impending events, he took the last train to Capetown before the famous siege began, with all his negatives.

Sailing for England with his family on the first available ship, his instincts as a showman and businessman ensured that his images of war created profitable lantern slide lectures that made money both for himself and war charities.

Within three months, he had also sold enough carbon prints of the war to the British public, to enable him to return alone to South Africa to market his pictures there.

They showed the soldiers’ daily experiences, so they sold widely to the fighting men, their families.

Having returned to England by 1902, he used his extensive library of images to keep his family in comfortable Edwardian style. With the right mix of talent and confidence, Nicholls could sell anything. Continually adding to his stock of images, he did much to make people appreciate the art of photography as he sold his prints to collectors and publishers.

His reproduction fees were paid whether selected images were published or not, and combining negatives and with other darkroom techniques, producing results that today’s digital imagers would applaud.

Many other skilled photographers of his era did the same, so what made Horace Nicholls special?

Fighting for our rights
By suing an errant publisher for infringement of copyright, Nicholls did more to defend the rights of photographers in one action, than latter-day committees laboriously achieved in the 1980’s.

He had sold a print of a photograph taken during the Boer War to the publishers of ‘The Graphic’, under licence for one use only, for a guinea.

The print was passed to a sister publication, ‘The Golden Penny’. That publication printed 86,230 copies of the picture and sold 82,230 of them. A legal precedent having already been established, Nicholls was awarded a farthing for each copy published. He received eighty-nine pounds, eleven shillings and eight pence, plus costs.

From that date, publishers knew that the work of freelance photographers could not be exploited with impunity. Yes, entrepreneur, businessman, artist-photographer, Horace W. Nicholls was a 20th Century great!

© Copyright John Chillingworth