Born in Montreal, P.Q., his parents died while he was still a child and by the time he was fourteen he had worked at a wide variety of jobs. When he had saved enough money he painted until just about every cent was spent then returned to work and saved again for more painting time. With few alternatives during The Depression, he was never able to afford formal art studies. He taught himself drawing and painting and received considerable guidance in figure drawing from Louis Muhlstock. Muhlstock. would suggest sketching at the local Turkish bath where both artists were allowed to sketch whenever they wanted and good subjects were to be found in its vaporous atmosphere. Much of their subject matter recorded the daily activities of the poorer people of Montreal. Nichols then lived in Ottawa with his brother from 1931 to 1939 and there received instruction in drawing from F.H. Varley who was in the city as a teacher at the Ottawa Art Association (1936-40). Having received guidance from Muhlstock. and Varley, both superb draughtsmen, Nichols made rapid progress. He spent several summers working as a deck hand on ships of the Great Lakes and when time permitted in his off duty hours he made charcoal, crayon and pencil wash drawings which caught the feeling of humanity he had found in the people of Montreal. By 1940 he was living in Toronto where his work was seen by Douglas Duncan owner of the Picture Loan Society Gallery who was so impressed with his talent that he arranged for a oneman show in 1941. The following year a solo show of his work was held at Hart House. Nichols was commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada in 1943 to execute paintings of the Canadian Merchant Navy. He sailed from Halifax to the Caribbean with Canadian artist Michael Forster also on assignment. In 1944 Nichols joined the Royal Canadian Navy and was then appointed Official War Artist (Apr. 1944 to Aug. 1945) and crossed the Channel on D Day with the British assault forces painting scenes of the Normandy landings and destroyer actions near Brest. He spent some time in Normandy until the fall of Caen then returned to London to develop his work. Many of his drawings (36 in mixed techniques of varying proportions in charcoal, chalk, pencil and turpentine wash) are now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He did many fine paintings during his years at sea and won a prize for Rescue at Sea shown at the Canadian Group of Painters exhibition in 1946. In 1947 he was awarded the unusual honour of a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative painting. This fellowship enabled him to study lithography in the studios of American printmakers and work with muralists. Then he did research on the application of synthetic resins to the fine arts at the National Polytechnical School in Mexico City. Returning to Canada he taught at the Vancouver School of Art and began producing lithographs (1948) and held a one-man show of lithos and drypoints at the Picture Loan Society, Toronto, in 1950. Viewing this show Pearl McCarthy noted, He draws like a master and this collection proves that he can exploit a variety of figures and countenances as well as the tragic, or lean-and-hungry types which dominated his earlier work. There is a drypoint of two figures (one with a clown-like rotundity and with indolently humorous face, the other with longer curves), in which both line and composition are breathtaking in their beauty. Yet it is done with supreme economy of expression. Girl with Folded Hands and Cowboy are excellent pictures in the now rare medium of stone lithograph. Nichols differs from some sensitive younger artists in not making a stew about his sensitivity, about feeling contemporary or being independent of influences. He just is. And this period away on Guggenheim fellowship broadened his concepts, but left him Jack Nichols. It is beautiful art. In 1955 he completed his large mural for the Salvation Army headquarters building designed by the Parkin architectural firm. He received a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship to study lithography in France (1956-57) and a Canada Council fellowship to continue his study of the graphic arts there in 1957 and then in 1960-61. Commenting on his lithographs in 1960 Kathleen Fenwick, then Curator of Prints and Drawings for the National Gallery of Canada, noted, . . . with the release of himself from this restraint he has produced with the greatest freedom prints rich in emotion and feeling, exploiting the whole magnificent range of lithographic blacks and achieving new textures which have interested even the experienced craftsmen-printers with whom he has been working. In this latest and so far most successful series of lithographs, . . . he has turned for his theme to the circus, a theme to which he naturally responds. For he finds in the sadness which pervades the sparkle and transient brilliance of circus life that melancholy which to him underlies all humanity and which moves him so deeply. During his career Nichols has done considerable teaching at: Northern Vocational School, Tor.; University of Toronto; Art Gallery of Toronto; Vancouver School of Art and the Ontario College of Art. His one-man shows include: Picture Loan Society, Tor. (1941, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1963, 1965); Art Gallery of Ontario, Tor. (1942); Hart House, Univ. Tor. (1942, 1954, 1960); Art Gallery Springfield, Mass. (1952); London Public Library and Art Museum, Ont. (1952); University of Massachusetts (1952); Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, P.Q. (1952); Victoria College, Univ. Tor. (1955); travelling exhibition through western Canada (1955-56); Contemporary Art Assoc., Ottawa (1958); Roberts Gallery, Tor. (1965, 1968) and many group shows national and international (see Creative Canada, P. 206). He is represented in the following collections: Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C.; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ont.; London Public Library and Art Museum, Ont.; Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont.; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ont. and the Public Archives of Canada. He is a member of the Canadian Group of Painters, Canadian Society of Graphic Art, and the Royal Canadian Academy. His awards include Guggenheim fellowship, 1947; C.G.P. exhibit. 1945; purchase prize, International Exhibition of Black and White, Lugano, Switzerland, 1952; Coronation medal, 1953; purchase prize, National Annual Exhibition, Hamilton, Ont., 1954; Canadian Government overseas award, 1956-57; Canada Council fellowship 1956, 1960-61; Royal Society of Canada fellowship.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada