Goats can see nymphs or maybe not...

In 1987, I visited the retrospective for the artist, Winifred Nicholson, at the Tate Gallery in London. It was a fabulous show that I visited three times. I recall a painting entitled, 'Goats can see Nymphs'. Reading Christopher Andreae's excellent (and beautifully illustrated) monograph on Nicholson, I discover that this painting was misnamed. It should have been entitled, 'Sea Nymphs and Shepherd Boy'.

I eagerly turned to the illustration as I had never found one before (and the picture, I recall, being in a private collection, and thus not easily re-visited). To my great surprise, I was confronted by a radically different picture either Andreae is mistaken and there are two pictures of this theme or I have reconstructed in my memory a vividly different picture.

In mine the nymphs are more ethereal - blue green, they cloudily dance in a circle in the midst of a grove - they are centre stage. To the right of the painting both shepherd and sheep stand about either asleep or oblivious and to the left (and in the foreground), a goat watches on, knowingly. Whereas in the illustrated picture - the nymphs are more robust figures and the shepherd and goat look on towards them (from the left) whilst dog and sheep (in the foreground) slumber oblivious.

I have associated the painting in my mind with a remark made by Gay Taylor, a friend of the poet, Kathleen Raine's (a close friend of Nicholson's) that in a dream she had heard a voice promise that God would now work through his goats. It is the knowingness of the goat (of which Nicholson was greatly fond, and had kept them) compared to the complacent sheep that resonates.

I have either a very vivid imagination - reshaping a picture yet after the style of the original artist (complete with her humour) or Andreae is simply wrong, and there are two paintings by Nicholson embodying the same theme!

Meanwhile, whatever the truth of nymphs and shepherds, the book is an illuminating study, especially on Nicholson's central motif - the vase of flowers on a window sill - as here. How she creates the intimacy of ledge and colour of particular, radiant flower contrasted against the mystery of distance (skipping the middle distance - for neither being intimate nor transcendent)?

Andreae captures Nicholson's balance between an earthy connection to the reality of things and 'glimpses' of a world yet other, enfolded in this one, waiting to be seen. She was a visionary painter whose vision was quiet and deeply colourful.


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