William Nicholson visited Spain for the first time in the winter of 1933, staying with his friend Ada Pringle in Seville. The present painting was made during Nicholson’s second trip to Spain, when he was invited to stay for Christmas 1934, with the zoologist Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, who had a house in the hills outside Malaga. Nicholson was given a space in the house in which to paint and he approached the trip as a working holiday, going out into the countryside, to make drawings in pencil and coloured chalks and producing oil sketches from direct observation. He returned to England in late January 1935 and the Churchills are thought to have bought this oil directly from the artist soon after.
Nicholson went back to stay with Sir Peter again only a few months later, in May 1935, and it was during this visit that he met and fell in love with the novelist Marguerite Steen, who was also staying as a guest at the house. They quickly became a couple and remained together for the rest of Nicholson’s life, with Steen later writing his biography in 1943. It was upon the encouragement of Steen that Nicholson painted the Plaza de Toros, Malaga, 1935, (now in the collection of the Tate Gallery). This painting was among the group of Spanish sketches, and some larger oils, which Nicholson exhibited at the Leicester Galleries, London in 1936. Clearly, the combination of a new relationship and the spectacular topography of Malaga were a huge inspiration and marked a new phase in Nicholson’s painting. His output increased, but more importantly, he was producing some of his best works, late in his career. His biographer, Sanford Schwartz, describes how ‘from that May meeting 1935 to some time in the early 1940s…Nicholson was on the streak of his life’. 1.
Back in London, on 21 May 1936, Nicholson wrote a letter to T.W. Bacon, declaring his new allegiance, ‘I am just returned from two months in Spain…I belong no more to the Downland. Here and There [Spain] are now my Spiritual Homes’. 2
Unbeknown to Nicholson, this had been, in fact, his last visit to Spain, as travel soon became prohibited by the outbreak of civil war. In total, Nicholson made around thirty paintings in Spain, but the vitality of this period continued into the landscapes he painted later in the 1930s of Italy and France.
The view depicted in The Castle, Malaga is thought to be looking south-east, towards the sea, with the Camino Nuevo in the foreground and the centre of Malaga out of the picture to the right. The hill at the centre of the composition was firstly the site of a lighthouse and then a castle. Neither of these buildings remain but they are commemorated by the name, Castillo de Gibralfaro (Castle of the Lighthouse). The walls of the later Moorish Alcazar, which was built to the west, can be seen silhouetted on the right of the painting. 3
This painting has a cooler palette than some of the other paintings of Malaga, having been painted in the winter months, but nevertheless the orange and ochre hues convey the warmth in the shadows. The close range of tones Nicholson uses here is typical of his Spanish landscapes, and it effects a wonderful sense of harmony across the composition. Here, one senses both the confidence and pleasure with which Nicholson has described the scene. He uses a range of painterly techniques, some areas appear to have been worked while wet, while other areas are more drily applied. The meandering paths are delineated with a single slick of the brush, while the area of rocks in the foreground reveal a greater impasto, with hints of a palette knife having been used. In the foreground, there are a few instances of fine lines having being drawn into the wet paint using the wrong end of the brush.
In The Castle, Malaga, the composition is structured around an elliptical circle, the bottom half being formed by the curving road, the top half by the bushes on the right and the limits of the grass on the hillside. This has the effect of drawing the eye around the painting, an underlying form which can be seen more explicitly in the painting Matadero, Segovia, 1935. Jacky Klein notes that these centralized, often elliptical motifs, were a common formal device, or perhaps an unconscious attraction, for the artist, recurring in the form of a pewter plate, the rim of a jug, an English pond or Spanish bull ring. 4
The importance and quality of Nicholson’s Malaga landscapes is confirmed by their presence in some of Britain’s most important public collections including the Tate Gallery, London; The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge; The National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh and Sheffield Museums and Art Galleries (Fig.4).
In 1935, the year he acquired this work, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), was serving as a back-bench MP. It was a period when he was politically isolated and had more time on his hands to write and paint. Churchill had taken up painting at the age 40, and in the year he acquired this work, produced his own paintings while staying in the South of France. Churchill took advice from, and enjoyed friendships with, several prominent painters of the time including Walter Sickert, William Nicholson and Wiliam Orpen. This painting was passed down to his youngest daughter, Mary who kept the painting throughout her life.
1 Sanford Schwartz, William Nicholson, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art & Yale University Press, 2004, p231
2 William Nicholson, Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Arts Council exhibition catalogue, 1980, p35
3 Patricia Reed, William Nicholson, Catalogue rasionné of the Oil Paintings, 2011, cat no.737, illus p565
4 Tate Gallery website note for Study for Plaza de Toros, Malaga, 1935
Signature: signed indistinctly 'Nicholson', titled and dated ‘Jan 1935’ verso
London, National Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings by Sir William Nicholson and Jack B.Yeats, 1 January - 15 March 1942, cat no 74
Lillian Browse, William Nicholson, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1956, cat no 448, p 104
Patricia Reed, William Nicholson, Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Modern Art Press/Yale University Press, London, 2011, cat no 737, illustrated p 565
Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Churchill
Lady Mary Soames