Views of Ceylon from a Belfast artist

Queen Victoria among the many admirers of 19th-century Irish artist Andrew Nicholl

‘Elephants Watering Amongst Water Lilies, Ceylon’

‘Elephants Watering Amongst Water Lilies, Ceylon’


Two watercolour paintings of 19th century Ceylon – today known as Sri Lanka – by an Irish artist, are to go under the hammer in a travel-related auction in London on Wednesday (February 7th). Bonhams’ Travel & Exploration auction in the Knightsbridge saleroom includes Lot 57, A River Landscape, Ceylon and Lot 58, Elephants Watering Amongst Water Lilies, Ceylon, both by artist Andrew Nicholl.

Who was Andrew Nicholl?

Andrew Nicholl was born in Belfast in 1804 – the son of a boot-maker. There’s an “Ulster History Circle” blue plaque on the house of his birth – 10 Church Lane (near Victoria Square). He started work as a printer with FD Finley where his elder brother William also worked – but later went on to become an accomplished illustrator for books and magazines and an important 19th century Irish watercolour artist. He spent time in Belfast, London, Dublin and Ceylon and died, in London, aged 82, in 1886. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and regularly exhibited there and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Why did he go to Ceylon?

Like many artists he needed to a job to supplement his precarious income from art. Andrew Nicholl had applied for – but failed to get – the job of “master of drawing” at the Royal Dublin Society in 1837. A decade later, and having moved to London, in 1849 he got a lucky break when he successfully applied for a job in one of the British colonies – Ceylon – and went to the capital, Colombo, as a teacher of painting and drawing in the “Colombo Academy”, the first government-run secondary school for boys established on the island by the ruling British authorities. The school, incidentally since renamed the Royal College, is still going strong and is regarded as the Eton of Sri Lanka. Ceylon, a large island off the south coast of India, was a British colony from 1804 until 1948 when it achieved independence and then, in 1972 became a Republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. Ceylon was once known as “Serendip” which led to the coining of the word “Serendipity” – meaning a happy coincidence.

'A River Landscape, Ceylon'
'A River Landscape, Ceylon'

What happened to him in Ceylon?

Serendipity resulted in another lucky break for Nicholl who found that the Colonial Secretary in Ceylon was a fellow Irishman and the same age. Sir James Emerson Tennent was a native of Co Down, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a former MP for Belfast. He befriended Nicholl and commissioned him to make drawings of the scenery as they travelled throughout the island. Both men were astounded by what they saw and utterly captivated by Ceylon’s rich and exotic wildlife, architecture, culture and customs. Nicholl wrote afterwards that his “sketch tour through the forests of Ceylon . . . though attended with both danger and fatigue . . . will ever be considered by me the most delightful of all my sketching excursions, either at home or in distant lands”. Tennent went on to write a major, two-volume 1,000-page book about the country called Ceylon – An Account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Topographical with Notices of Its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions illustrated with numerous drawings by Nicholl among others.

And the aftermath?

Both men retuned to London and Tennent’s book was published, to great acclaim, in 1859. It is a classic of Victorian travel writing and copies of the book are now much sought-after by collectors. Nicholl’s illustrations also attracted interest and he made a series of watercolour paintings of Ceylon which were exhibited in London and found eager buyers. Some were acquired by museums and others by private collectors – most notably Queen Victoria – a huge accolade for an artist in 19th-century Britain.

Did he paint other subjects?

Yes, Andrew Nicholl was a prolific artist. He is best-known for his paintings of Irish wild flower landscapes. He also worked as an illustrator for one of the most famous Victorian travel books about Ireland: Hall’s Ireland: Mr & Mrs Hall’s Tour of 1840.

Where are his paintings?

The National Gallery of Ireland has some 15 watercolours by Andrew Nicholl in its collection – landscape views of Ireland including views of Killiney & Bray Head, Santry, Donegal, Belfast and Derry. His pictures are also in the Ulster Museum, and, in London in the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. But many are privately owned and they occasionally turn up at auction in Dublin and London.

How much are they worth?

A watercolour by Andrew Nicholl in good condition will normally sell for several thousand euro – and some for more. Among examples: in the Sotheby’s Irish Art Sale in London three years ago, Malahide Estuary sold for £19,375 (including the buyer’s premium); and both Whyte’s and Adam’s in Dublin have achieved hammer prices of up to €17,000 for one of his pictures.

What about the pictures in Bonhams this week?

Lot 57 is A River landscape, Ceylon estimated at £3,000-£5,000 (€3,400- €5,000) and Lot 58, Elephants Watering Amongst Water Lilies, Ceylon is £5,000-£7,000 (€5,600-€7,900).

And the provenance?

The paintings were once owned by Lord Pirbright (formerly Baron Henry de Worms) who was the British government’s Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1888 to 1892. His family had extensive plantations in Ceylon. After his death, his wife Lady Pirbright gifted the paintings to her late husband’s private secretary and they remained in that family’s ownership. A descendant has now consigned the pair to Bonhams.

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