Nicholson came comparatively late in life to botanical art, and it was not until she was in her late thirties, after attending a course at Kew led by the artist Annie Farrer, that she discovered her true talent. From the start she displayed a prodigious level of skill in handling pen-and-ink, but what accompanied it was a highly distinctive eye in her choice of subject matter. One of her very first drawings was of a lichen-encrusted hawthorn branch which she had found on the edge of a tidal creek in Cornwall, and much of her work focuses in minute detail on such subjects as leaf litter, mosses, fungi and twigs, often in a state of decay.

Such drawings are radically at odds with the conventions of botanical art. After her death, ‘The Guardian’ wrote that:

What lay behind such works was a vision of nature’s dynamism. Interested in ideas of change and transformation, she found beauty in the knots, scars, carbuncles and collapses produced by natural growth and accident. She was enthralled by the tangle of nature: a typical drawing shows a clump of snow-drops poking from a complicated mass of rotting leaf-litter.


The slow and painstaking way in which she worked, using proportional dividers to measure every minute detail from thorns and hairs to small blemishes and puddles of light, meant that her drawings became extended meditations on and through time. She was fascinated by the quiet and unobtrusive lives of plants, particularly those found in the woods and fields around her studio near Shaftesbury in Dorset, and by the relationships of those plants with the rest of the natural world, including insects and micro-organisms; in that sense her work may be more accurately characterised as ecological rather than botanical art.

In 2007, at the age of 48, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Several of the pictures that followed, such as ‘Interrupted by Cancer – Recovering from the Flail’ (2008), which shows a section of hedge savaged by a mechanical flail, and ‘The Viable’ (2009) – are accounts of her fight against the disease. They express her sense of nature and its conflicting processes of decay and death, and of regeneration and life. Despite failing health, Nicholson began to undertake projects that were increasingly ambitious and challenging, both technically and imaginatively. Among them were some studies of acorns infected by wasp galls; in one, the acorn is greatly magnified, so that it resembles the leg and body of some strange insect. Her last picture, completed in December 2010, four months before her death, is one of the largest botanical pictures of recent years, a remarkably striking drawing of three half-eaten pine cones, magnified seven times their actual size.

The English nature writer Paul Evans described her late drawings as ‘extraordinary acts’:

They are existential – a holding on to the beauty of Nature in the face of death. They are political, spiritual acts – art communicating the significance of ephemeral and overlooked things to a world which couldn’t care less.