Today marks 100 years since the birth of Norman Nicholson (1914-1987), poet, dramatist, novelist, critic, biographer and topographer. Nicholson was born on 8 January 1914 at 14 St George’s Terrace in Millom, Cumbria, behind the gentleman’s outfitter’s shop run by his father. This would be Nicholson’s home for most of his life, and Millom and its environs inspired much of his work – from his poetry to his works on local topography and the history of the Lake District.
Encouraged in his early writing by T.S. Eliot, Nicholson had seven collections of poetry published by Faber & Faber, and his work was praised by other leading writers, including Ted Hughes (who was taught at school by Nicholson’s friend, John Fisher) and Seamus Heaney. He received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977 and an OBE in 1981, so it is perhaps surprising that his work is not more widely known today. Much of this is down to his decision not to relocate to London and join its literary circles; he preferred to stay in the western part of the Lake District where he was born, and his poetry commemorates its people, culture, and industrial heritage.
We should be hearing much more about Nicholson during his centenary year. Kathleen Jones’s excellent biography of Nicholson, The Whispering Poet, was published recently; ‘Provincial Pleasures’, a Radio 4 programme about Nicholson presented by Eric Robson, was broadcast on Sunday; the Norman Nicholson Society have lots of events planned; and there will be a small exhibition at the Rylands from September this year.
Last September we welcomed the Norman Nicholson Society to the Library, which provided a great opportunity to get out some material from our Nicholson collections. Nicholson’s own archive was deposited at the Library by his family shortly after his death, and its rich content reflects the whole range of his work. This archive has been complemented over the years by the acquisition of many related collections, in particular, correspondence and papers from Nicholson’s second cousin, Doreen Cornthwaite, who was a close friend of Nicholson during the last twenty years of his life; and Nicholson’s correspondence with Sylvia Lubelsky (later Elvey), to whom he became close at Linford Sanatorium in Hampshire in 1930, where he was sent for two years after being diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. These letters are particularly illuminating in charting the period after Nicholson returned to Millom in 1932 and began developing his ideas and writing his earliest poetry. On looking through these uncatalogued letters from the 1930s for items to share with the Nicholson Society, I came across a letter which unexpectedly sheds some light on a previously undated item in our collections that came from a completely different source: a small illustrated manuscript album entitled ‘Limitations’.
This came to the Library in 2002 from a friend of Jeanne Rollin, to whom it was dedicated; Jeanne was a friend of Nicholson and John Edward Fisher (always known to Nicholson as Ted). The humorous verses it contains are by both Nicholson and Fisher – as indicated by the title page – but were written out and illustrated by Fisher.
Nicholson had notoriously bad handwriting, but luckily this letter to his friend Sylvia was written during the 1930s when his writing was still reasonably legible.
In the extract above, he explains that ‘The Limitation is a new poetical form we have developed. It consists of satirical verse under the title Upon Mr so & so, his limitations as such & such.’ He goes on to explain that it satirised both public characters and some local Millom people Jeanne had met on a visit to the town.
One of the exciting things about curating the archives of modern authors is having the unique opportunity to speak to people who actually knew the writer in question – something which can both enhance our knowledge about, and provide different perspectives on, the collections we hold. During the Society’s recent visit, it was a privilege to be able to speak to both Doreen Cornthwaite, and Peggy Troll – who was a close friend during Nicholson’s final years. Peggy and her friend Dorothy Richardson were also able to identify some of the Millom people referred to in the ‘Limitations’ album, which no one present had ever seen before. We now know that the people represented include Dr Will McRoss – a local GP and probably the Nicholson family doctor; Will Lancaster, who was at school with Nicholson; and Richmond B. Ward, who was a newsagent but had at one time been a professional actor, and whom Peggy remembers from her childhood as a noted raconteur with a beautiful voice.
For those interested in sampling Nicholson’s mature poetry, below is a typescript draft of one of his very last poems, annotated in his own hand. ‘Comet Come’ – dedicated to Peggy – was written to mark the visit of Halley’s Comet in 1986; it was commissioned by Radio 4 producer Richard Dunn for the Kaleidoscope programme, and was published in The Listener.
All images of work by Norman Nicholson are reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the Norman Nicholson Literary Estate.