Horace W. Nicholls


1867 - 1941

Born in Cambridge in 1867, Horace Walter Nicholls was the eldest of ten children, his father, Arthur Nicholls, was an artist in watercolours and a photographer. In 1876 the family moved to Sandown in the Isle of Wight where Nicholls began learning his future trade in his father's studio. There followed a brief spell as assistant at the William Duffus studio in Huddersfield before setting out, aged 19, to Chile to take up a post as photographer's assistant in Valparaíso. In 1889 he returned to England and was taken on by the Cartland Studio in Windsor where he worked for three years before moving to South Africa to join the Goch Studio in Johannesburg.

In 1893, after a brief spell back in England during which time he was married to Florence Holderness, Nicholls returned to Johannesburg. Now manager of the Goch Studio, his entrepreneurial instincts were good and the business flourished. By 1899 South Africa was in the grip of the 2nd Boer War and Nicholls was taken on as official correspondent covering the conflict for the London-based journal South Africa.

He returned to England in 1902. No longer satisfied with studio work, he set about becoming a freelancer. By 1904, with five children to support, he was more than ever reliant on his instinct for taking the right picture at the right time and his ability to sell. His experience in South Africa had undoubtedly prepared him and it wasn't long before his coverage of society and sporting events, Ascot, the Derby, Henley, Cowes, as well as the great royal occasions, became sought after by the major journals and newspapers of the day. His distinctive approach is now widely acknowledged as having contributed to the shaping of modern photojournalism.

Come 1914 and the onset of WW1, Nicholls was considered too old to cover combat operations and it's not entirely clear how he was employed during the first three years of the war. In April 1917 tragedy struck when George, his beloved eldest son, was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Arras. The critical breakthrough came later that year, he was appointed official photographer to the Ministry of Information, his instruction '...to take photographs in Great Britain for publication in neutral and allied countries for propagandist purposes'.

While the nation's young men were being called up in their millions to serve at the front, women were replacing them in all walks of life back home. His pictures of women's war work are considered amongst the most enduring of his legacy, providing a vivid glimpse into an unforeseen social revolution. His coverage of the role played by women at this time of national crisis is notable for its directness, its warmth and its simplicity. It confirms him as one of the outstanding photographers of his generation.

David Mallinson