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Nicolson, Benedict

    Full Name: Nicolson, Benedict

    Other Names:

    • Lionel Benedict Nicolson

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1914

    Date Died: 1978

    Place Born: Sevenoaks, Kent, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Career(s): art critics and publishers


    Editor, Burlington Magazine (1947-1978). Nicolson was the oldest child of Harold George Nicolson (1886-1968) and Victoria Mary (“Vita”) Sackville-West (1892-1962). He attended Eton and then, between 1933-36, Balliol College, Oxford, where he majored in modern history. There he met and became early friends with John Pope-Hennessy. He and a group of Oxford colleagues founded the “Florentine Club” which invited art historians such as Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read, Clive Bell and the painter Duncan Grant (1885-1978) to discuss art. He traveled extensively in Europe and the United States, spending a great deal of time studying with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti. Clark assigned him an unpaid position at the National Gallery until Nicolson left to attend courses at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. He returned to London where Clark now secured a post for his as Deputy Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 1939. However, World War II erupted almost immediately. Nicolson served in British Army Intelligence, 1939-45, first as an interpreter in a POW camp in Italy and then the Middle East where he rose to the rank of captain. He was badly injured in an auto accident while on leave in England and never returned to service. He resumed his job as surveyor, now under Anthony Blunt, and organized exhibitions at Burlington House. In 1947, at age 32, largely at the insistence of Read and Ellis K. Waterhouse, Nicolson was given the editorship of the Burlington Magazine. The magazine had been editorless since before the war, when Waterhouse had been in charge. He remained at the magazine for more than thirty years. During that time, Nicolson turned the magazine, which had previously focused on collectors as its audience, into the major British scholarly periodical on art history. In 1955 he married the art historian Luisa Vertova, a Berenson student working at I Tatti. They divorced in 1962. In 1973, Nicolson authored the volume on Courbet’s The Studio of the Painter for the innovative Art in Context series of Penguin Press. His Joseph Wright of Derby (1968) remains and important work on the subject. Returning from a party celebrating his years as editor of the Burlington Magazine, Nicolson suffered a heart attack, alone, on a London subway platform and died. He was succeeded at the Burlington Magazine by Terence Hodgkinson. Nicolson’s younger brother, Nigel Nicolson (b. 1917), co-founded the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Nicolson’s 1973 Art in Context volume on Courbet appeared the same year as another groundbreaking monograph on Courbet, An Image of the People by T. J. Clark. The approaches of the two men could not be more contrasting. As an editor he was called upon to make quick and at times Quixotic decisions about articles. He would even alter meeting minutes of the Burlington Magazine executive board to get this way. His celebrated row with contributor and one-time board member John Pope-Hennessy was well documented and lasted their lives. Nicolson was particularly unconcerned about his own health. A smoker and hard drinker, his death at 64 came after a period of declining health. His divorce from Luisa Vertova resulted in a number of bizarre phobias including crossing bridges on foot.

    Selected Bibliography

    Hendrick Terbrugghen. London: L. Humphries, 1959; Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light. 2 vols. London and New York: 1968; Courbet: The Studio of the Painter. Art in Context (series). New York: Viking, 1973; and Wright, Christopher. Georges de La Tour. London: Phaidon Press, 1974; The International Caravaggesque Movement: Lists of Pictures by Caravaggio and his Followers throughout Europe from 1590 to 1650. Oxford: Phaidon, 1979; John Hamilton Mortimer ARA, 1740-1779: Paintings, Drawings and Prints. London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1968; and Kerslake, John. The Treasures of the Foundling Hospital. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 506; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 84; “Benedict Nicolson and the Burlington Magazine.” The Burlington Magazine 69 no. 889 (April 1977): 229-230; Nicolson, Nigel. “Nicolson, (Lionel) Benedict.” The Dictionary of National Biography. 1971-1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 630-31; [obituaries] Haskell, Francis. “Benedict Nicolson (1914-1978).” The Burlington Magazine 120, No. 904. (July 1978): 429-431; “Mr Benedict Nicolson.” The Times (London) May 26, 1978, p. 20.


    "Nicolson, Benedict." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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