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16 October 2014
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Andrew Nicholl

Scarcely remembered today on his native island, Nicholl is more celebrated on a very different island, thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean - Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

Galle Harbour, by Nicholl

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Andrew Nicholl (1804-86): Belfast Artist in Colonial Ceylon
Article by Joe Simpson (Duncan, BC, Canada)

In Church Lane, a short distance west of the Queen's Bridge, there is a blue plaque high up on the wall of one of the Belfast city centre's few surviving early 19th century buildings. It denotes the birthplace and home of Andrew Nicholl, Ulster's most successful landscape painter of the mid-19th century.

Scarcely remembered today on his native island, except by art scholars and collectors eager to pay good prices for his works when they come on the market, Nicholl is more celebrated on a very different island, thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean - Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). How this rather surprising connection came to be, is the subject of this photo essay.

Andrew Nicholl
Plaque in Church Lane Belfast to Andrew Nicholl
Andrew Nicholl 1804-1886

In 1973 Belfast's Ulster Museum held a 7-week exhibition of a selection of Nicholl's watercolours and drawings, many of scenes in Belfast, Co. Down and the Antrim Coast.

About 70 items went on display, very far from the Museum's complete collection of original works, numbering almost 400, by this prolific artist.

The exhibition catalogue also lists 3 scenes from Ceylon, including a striking Turner-esque composition from about 1846-8 featuring Galle Harbour - See the photograph, here ons the right, where it is being held up for the camera by Martyn Anglesea, Keeper of Fine Art at the Ulster Museum.

Compare my other photograph below, of the same harbour scene (with modern lighthouse but similarly traditional outrigger fish-boats) taken by zoom lens from the same vantage point over 150 years later.

Martyn Anglesea of Ulster Museum holding painting of Galle Harbour, by Nicholl


Galle Harbour 2002
(Above) Galle Harbour with colonial Dutch fort in background, photographed in late 2002. Two years later, the December 26, 2004 tsunami swamped this and other parts of Sri Lanka's coastline. The 300-year-old Galle Fort withstood its onslaught undamaged.


National Museum Columbo

In February 1998, HRH the Prince of Wales opened the Andrew Nicholl Exhibition at the National Museum, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Thanks to the generosity of a foreign investment bank, Jardine Fleming, 28 of Nicholl's watercolours of early colonial Ceylon that had languished for years in tropical humidity at the Colombo museum, had been painstakingly restored in London by British Museum experts, and provided with a specially refurbished, air-conditioned gallery back in Colombo.

(Above) National Museum, Colombo, Sri Lanka - home of a permanent Andrew Nicholl exhibition

Coinciding with Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of national independence, this exhibition was hailed by then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga as "a superlative collection, part of our national heritage". Quite the achievement for the younger son of a humble Church Lane, Belfast boot maker!

How the Ulsterman Andrew Nicholl came to spend several years in (then) Ceylon of the later 1840s, is a piece of "serendipity" in keeping with the tropical island's ancient Arab name, Serendib. Nicholl first worked as a compositor at The Northern Whig, in the mid-1820s. A precocious artist since childhood, by the later 1820s, while still a printer's apprentice, without any formal art training he had produced over 100 watercolours of the Antrim Coast. By 1830 he was in London, transforming his technique by copying masterworks at the Dulwich College Gallery, then the only major collection open to the public.

(Above) Sir James Emerson Tennent, portrait circa 1845
By 1837, he could style himself A.H.R.A. - Associate of Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy. He moved back to London in 1840, where he remained until setting sail for Ceylon in 1846 as a result of a long-time association with one of The Northern Whig's earliest political contributors, Sir James Emerson Tennent (plain James Emerson until his 1832 marriage to a wealthy Belfast heiress named Letitia Tennent and his eventual knighthood after 13 often-turbulent years as Conservative MP for Belfast).

In 1845 the Ulster-born Tennent, owner through marriage of Tempo Manor in Co. Fermanagh, for his parliamentary services had been awarded the coveted Chief Secretaryship of the Crown Colony of Ceylon, and soon after arriving on the Island arranged for his friend Nicholl back in London, to be made an art teacher at the government-run Colombo Academy (nowadays a prestigious Sri Lankan private school known as Royal College).

(Above) Map of route taken by Andrew Nicholl during his July 1848 Ceylon sketching tour

Nicholl left England for Ceylon in August 1846, crossing the Egyptian desert by camel to the Red Sea, as Orient-bound travellers did in those days before the Suez Canal. Not a great deal is known about his everyday life as an art teacher once he reached Colombo, except that the College ran into financial difficulties after a few years, forcing his permanent return to Britain's colder climes by 1849. Tennent followed him back from Ceylon to London not long after, caught up in the Westminster political aftershock from an 1848 failed Sinhalese rebellion during his tenure.

Apart from his paintings and drawings, Andrew Nicholl did provide posterity with some account of his adventures in Ceylon, however - in the form of a vivid description published in the 1852 Dublin University Magazine, of a sketching tour that he made through part of the Island in July/August 1848, initially in the company of his patron Tennent, and later on his own, that ended up with his headlong flight from a rebel army!

Blissfully ignorant of the perils that lay ahead, Nicholl and his companions set out by "hired palenkeen carriage" from Colombo for the central hill town of Kandy early in July, 1848. Once there, he enthused over the picturesque artificial lake built by a former king, surrounded by "undulating wooded hills", seen in the modern photograph below. The British had finally defeated the warlike, proudly independent Kandyans only thirty years before. The Temple of the Tooth, beside the lake, remains Sri Lanka's most sacred site for its majority Buddhist population.


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