I first came across Catherine Maude Nichols in a book published in 1910 called ‘Citizens of No Mean City’, a Jarrolds trade book containing over 360 potted biographies with accompanying photographs of ‘Norwich Citizens of To-day’ , some of whom probably paid for advertising their business on the facing page. I was attracted by the fact that Kate Nichols was one of only three women … and by the flamboyant hat.
Although she herself was not a major figure her artistic life is fascinating for spanning the last days of Crome and Cotman’s Norwich School of Artists and the emergence of English Impressionism.
Kate was born in 1847 behind this fine Georgian doorway at 32 Surrey Street, Norwich, where she was looked after by a nanny and a nurse.
This was on the opposite side of the street to the tall terrace, built in 1761 by Thomas Ivory (Assembly House, Octagon Chapel), where Sir James Edward Smith of Linnean Society fame lived from 1796 to 1828 [see previous blog post 2]. Unfortunately, this fashionable Georgian street was bombed in WWII and the even-numbered houses on the east side no longer exist. Fortunately, George Plunkett recorded No 32 in 1935.
Kate Nichols’ father was born into a wealthy Norfolk farming and landowning family who lived at Alpington Hall, a few miles south of Norwich .
Her father, William Peter Nichols, was related to the Musketts. Regular readers may recall that when Colonel C. W. Unthank married Mary Anne Muskett and moved into her family home at Intwood Hall, a few miles south of the city, he started selling off his own land on which much of Norwich’s present-day Golden Triangle was built .
Kate’s father trained in London as a surgeon and returned to Norwich in the 1820s. In the 1850s he was appointed one of the four surgeons at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where he specialised in removing bladder stones – something once common in Norfolk.
At various times William Peter Nichols was to be mayor and local magistrate as well as surgeon to the police, to the prison and to the Bethel Hospital. The latter was opened in 1713 by Mary Chapman as an asylum for the curable mentally ill and may well have been the first purpose-built asylum in the country. In 1836 Nichols bought Heigham House as a ‘private lunatic asylum’ for ladies and gentlemen. We previously encountered this mansion at the junction of Old Palace Road and Heigham Street when trying to discover which of several Heigham Houses/Halls was home to the Unthank family . This mental asylum was in competition with the genteel Heigham Retreat whose tree-lined avenue is commemorated by Avenue Road.
Nichols and two other doctors bought out Heigham Retreat but closed it in 1859 after it was involved in scandal. In 1852 a curate from Hethersett, Reverend Edmund Holmes, was accused of raping a young girl but, because of his family’s standing in the county, Holmes was promptly admitted to The Retreat by Dr Nichols in order to evade arrest. Nichols then appointed Holmes as chaplain to the asylum  and boasted that he had rescued one of his class from the clutches of the law .
In 1870, Sir Robert John Harvey, senior partner in Norwich Crown Bank on Agricultural Hall Plain, shot himself after bankrupting the business. Hard to believe but in a letter to the Eastern Daily Press dated 1960 the correspondent recalls tales of a suicide being buried with a stake through the heart at a crossroads in Heigham . Although such roadside burial was repealed in 1823 those who committed self-murder whilst still in control of their faculties could only be buried in cemeteries between 9pm and midnight, and without ceremony. William Nichols was the Harvey family’s doctor and it was his diagnosis of hereditary ‘excitement’ (i.e., whilst the balance of his mind was temporarily disturbed) that allowed Sir Robert a Christian burial.
It was into this wealthy and politically involved family that Kate was born. And when, in Dr Nichols’ mayoral year (1866), the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Norwich together with the Queen of Denmark it was Kate who presented the princess a book of Norwich photographs on behalf of the women of the city .
That evening Kate accompanied her parents to a ball held at Costessey Hall where the royal party stayed for three days with the Jerninghams in their never-completed Gothic fantasy.
Costessey Hall was made of ‘Cossey’ brick, baked from Jerningham clay by the Gunton family who went on to supply decorative and carved bricks that can still be seen around the city [see previous post 9].
There seems to have been something Walter Mitty-like about Kate Nichols. She was to describe herself as a spinster with no close relatives but in so doing she ignored two brothers, three nieces, two nephews and a dozen cousins . She would also tell others that she was a self-taught artist despite: having a drawing mistress at school; studying with David Hall McEwan, a member of the Royal Society of Watercolour Artists; and at age 27 studying for two terms at the Norwich School of Art where she probably learned etching and won a prize in the Advanced Division. Indeed, the Head of the NSA stated that Kate Nichols and George Skipper were the two best students during his 25-year tenure .
There was an artistic strand in the Nichols family for her four aunts had been taught at Alpington Hall by co-founder of the Norwich School of Artists, John Crome, some of whose landscape paintings hung in Kate’s home in Surrey Street .
Almost always described as ‘etchings’ most of Kate’s output was actually dry point engraving. Unlike etching, which involves ‘eating’ into a copper plate with acid, dry point engraving involves incising lines directly onto a copper sheet with a sharp tool; this raises a ‘burr’ that – when inked – is pressed onto paper to create an impression. Because printing produces a mirror image the original scene should be drawn in reverse but for some reason Kate did not do this for ‘Tombland’.
Kate’s first dry point engraving for which there is a record, ‘College’, was made in 1875 when she was 28. There was something about this linear technique that suited Kate’s fondness for landscape for she seems to have been less accomplished with the rounded forms of the human body .
Here we see the gardens of the Bethel Hospital, where her father was surgeon.
Kate Nichols was single and adventurous, dropping in – apparently – on artists she admired, such as Lord Leighton and John Everett Millais . She travelled alone to France and from 1876-8 visited Barbizon, south of Paris, to join others painting there. This was a generation after the original founders of the Barbizon school, such as Corot and Millet, had painted landscape from nature in the manner of East Anglian John Constable. Future Impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Sisley also went to Barbizon and although Kate may not have met them she at least mixed with ‘hundreds of artists’ who were also paying their dues . In 1879, she stayed in Newlyn – the Cornish counterpart to Barbizon – and this time she was not too late to catch the wave: now she was amongst painters out of whom the ‘Newlyn Group’ of artists would emerge with their impressionistic style.
Back home, Kate was to draw from the countryside around Norwich as well as the urban landscape of the city itself. She exhibited widely and between 1877-1908 some of her engravings were shown at the Royal Academy. The first was of Ber Street, Norwich, which illustrates animals being driven towards the livestock market around the castle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kate was influenced by the Norwich School painters whose work had hung in her family home . In 1907 she was to produce a folder of prints entitled ‘After Crome’.
She was obviously fond of the area around Cow Hill.
The houses in Willow Lane, off Cow Hill, are largely as Kate must have seen them, though not all of the houses on Cow Hill survive.
She drew George Borrow’s House half way up the hill between Pottergate and Willow Lane.
George Borrow (1803-1881) was a larger-than-life character: a boxer, a spinner of tales, a gipsy traveller and a linguist who taught himself Old Norse and Welsh. He was born in Dereham but his family lived for a while in Norwich where George was taught at Norwich Grammar School alongside Kate’s father and uncle . In 1913 Kate was to provide engravings of the interior of the Borrow house for a souvenir booklet produced a decade late for Borrow’s centenary.
The Society (later the Royal Society) of Painter-Etchers was formed in 1880; two years later Kate submitted a diploma piece, Scotch Firs, for which she was elected the first female fellow.
In 1882 Kate was baptised into the Catholic faith, causing a rift with her family. In 1891 she is recorded as living a few doors away at 12 Surrey Street and by 1900 she had ventured further along the road to Carlton Terrace.
Before St John’s Catholic Church (later Cathedral) was completed in 1910 Kate worshipped at the Old St John’s Chapel (1794), which is now the Maddermarket Theatre.
For the frontispiece of a book celebrating Catholicism in Norwich Kate painted the new Catholic church from Chapelfield North .In this book Kate appears on a photographic plate of notable Catholic women.
Kate Nichols’ closest friend was the wealthy Mary Radford Pym who lived in an exotic Tudor Revival house in Chapelfield (once home to my dental practice).
Mrs Pym was philanthropic. She funded the clocktower in Sheringham and gave land on Earlham Road to be used as a park. She also gave money to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital for a nurses’ home; this funded Pym House on the corner of Unthank and Christchurch Roads .
In 1889, Mrs Radford Pym arranged for her good friend Kate to be installed as President of the newly-founded Woodpecker Art Club, a title she held until her death 34 years later. The Woodpeckers – who included Alfred Munnings among their members – were so named because they chipped away at wooden engraving blocks, unlike Kate who inscribed metal. In addition to outings the club held an annual meeting upstairs in ‘Princes’ high-class confectioners in Castle Street, owned by Margaret Pillow a friend of Mrs Pym.
Kate died in 1923 and in her memory Mrs Pym arranged for a portrait, painted 20 years earlier by neighbour Edward Elliot, to be bought and donated to the Castle Museum. It was presented by Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, who succeeded Kate as President of The Woodpeckers (Frederick was son of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Sir Duleep Singh, a favourite of Queen Victoria who lived in exile at Elveden Hall, near Thetford).
In 1927 the Woodpeckers merged with the Norwich Art Circle (est. 1885), which continues as the Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle.
© 2019 Reggie Unthank
- Citizens of No Mean City (1910). Pub: Jarrold, Norwich.
- Pamela Inder and Marion Aldis (2015). ‘A Forgotten Norwich Artist: Catherine Maude Nichols’. Pub: Poppyland Publishing, Cromer.
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England: Norfolk I.Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Letter by CC Lanchester to the Eastern Daily Press 20.9.1960.
- A Great Gothic Fane: The Catholic Church of St John the Baptist, Norwich (1913). Pub: WT Pike and Co., Brighton.
I have relied for background on ‘A Forgotten Norwich Artist: Catherine Maude Nichols’ by Pamela Inder and Marion Aldis – a model of local historical research (and still available). I also thank Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk for permission to reproduce photographs (try the site: https://norfolk.spydus.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/PICNOR/HOME). Thanks, too, to Jonathan Plunkett for allowing access to his father’s invaluable collection of Norwich photographs: http://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/Website/.