Nicholl, Andrew (1804–86), artist, was born 4 April 1804 in Church Lane, Belfast, the second eldest of three sons of Henry Nicholl, a shoemaker. Although not receiving any formal art tuition, he was probably encouraged by his elder brother William, a competent amateur artist, to pursue painting as a career; by age 14 he was accomplished enough to give drawing lessons to Montague Talbot, actor and manager of the Belfast Theatre. In 1822 Andrew was apprenticed as a compositor to Francis Dalzell Finlay (qv), the Belfast printer who in 1824 established the Northern Whig; during his seven-year term, Nicholl worked in the newspaper's letterpress department. Quickly establishing himself locally as a landscape artist, he executed a series of 101 watercolour paintings of the Antrim coast from Belfast to Portrush (c.1828) (now in the Ulster Museum, Belfast (UMB)). By laying colours in flat washes over pencil outlines, he achieved, in such works as ‘South east view of Dunluce castle from the rockheads’ and ‘Clough-i-stookan’, a hard-edge effect that gave a unique expression to the topography of the area, depicted before construction of the coast road in 1834–5. In these early works, he employed a technique of scraping details in dark areas, known as sgraffito. In ‘Bengore head from the interior of Port Braddan cave’, depicting a seascape framed by a cave opening, he signalled a prevalent compositional motif used in marine scenes throughout his career.
First exhibiting in the Commercial Buildings, Belfast, in 1830, he began teaching painting, both from his lodgings at 14 Church Lane and in Coleraine. He soon attracted the attention of members of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, such as James Lawson Drummond (qv), a botanist and anatomist who wished Nicholl to illustrate his scientific books. His friendship with the politician and writer James Emerson Tennent (qv) developed into patronage; in 1830 they travelled together to London, where Nicholl remained two years, studying and copying pictures in the Dulwich college gallery, the most significant collection of old master paintings then on public view in London. His artistic influences at this time included Copley Fielding and Peter de Wint. Developing a freer, more contemporary style, he exhibited a ‘Study from nature’ at the Royal Academy in 1832. Moving to Dublin, he also exhibited that year for the first time at the RHA, eight watercolours of scenes in England and Ulster. Commissioned in 1832 by the publisher Ackermann to undertake a series of drawings in the western highlands of Scotland, he seems also to have been sent as a draughtsman to Staffa, which would account for his many pictures of Fingal's cave and the island's columnar basalt cliffs.
Most of his work of the 1830s was topographical and antiquarian, as he made numerous sketches of castles, abbeys, and megalithic monuments throughout Ireland. Engravings of his drawings were published in the Dublin Penny Journal from its establishment (1832). Thirteen views on the Dublin and Kingstown railway (1834) comprised colour prints of his sketches, engraved by Robert Clayton. He collaborated with antiquarian artist Henry O'Neill (qv) on the volume Fourteen views in the county of Wicklow from original drawings (1835), which included Nicholl's ‘Waterfall in the Devil's Glen’, and with O'Neill and George Petrie (qv) on Picturesque sketches of some of the finest landscape and coast scenery of Ireland (1835). He produced two albums of Irish antiquities (c.1834–7), comprising sketches of such sites as Mellifont abbey and Carlingford castle, and containing his notes on ancient monuments; held in the UMB, despite lacking high artistic merit, they are useful as archaeological records. Another album, Twelve drawings of the northern coast of Ireland (1836), dedicated to the countess of Mulgrave, contained lithographs. Nicholl was among several artists who illustrated Ireland: its scenery, character, etc. (1841–3), a book composed from tours made by Samuel Carter Hall (qv) and his wife Anna Maria Hall (qv) from 1825 onwards; represented by over one hundred wood engravings after his drawings, Nicholl also supplied the Halls with valuable historical information and observation on the recently discovered Mitchelstown caves, Co. Tipperary, and on Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.
Nicholl continued to paint views of the Antrim coastline, many of which were shown at the RHA; ‘East view of the Giant's Causeway’, exhibited in 1836, is now in the UMB. One of the first members of the Belfast Association of Artists on its establishment in 1836, at its first exhibition in the Belfast Museum he presented some thirty landscapes with his brother William. Elected an associate of the RHA in 1837, he became RHA in 1860. Moving to London in 1840, he completed illustrations for John Fisher Murray's Environs of London (1842), and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and at the first exhibition of the Northern Irish Art Union (1842). His paintings of the mid 1840s included ‘The rocky glen, Tollymore park’, ‘The old tree in the glen’, and ‘Scene near Bayswater’; the latter won a Royal Irish Art Union prize in 1843. He also published pastoral poetry in the Dublin University Magazine and other journals. In 1846 he was appointed first teacher of landscape painting, scientific drawing, and design, at the Colombo academy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where his old patron Tennent was now colonial secretary. Before assuming the position, Nicholl studied mapping and engineering drawing at the ordnance survey department, Somerset house, London. While accompanying Tennent as a draughtsman on a tour of the island's interior, he narrowly escaped capture by rebels during the Kandyan revolt (July–August 1848). His detailed account of the journey, ‘A sketching tour of five weeks in the forests of Ceylon’ (Dublin University Magazine (Nov.–Dec. 1852)), gives an historical background to his sketches of ancient Buddhist temples, ruined cities (including Anaradhapoora), and such religious landmarks as the delada, or sacred tooth of the Buddha.
After returning from Ceylon (1849/50), Nicholl lived variously in London, Dublin, and Belfast, and taught landscape drawing in the latter city, one of his pupils being James Moore (qv). Some eighty engravings of his illustrations appeared in Tennent's acclaimed work Ceylon: an account of the island, physical, historical, and topographical (1859). In 1861 Nicholl spent time in Scotland, where he sketched Glengarry and Dumbarton castles. His late land- and seascapes suggest the influence of J. M. W. Turner in their atmospheric composition; ‘Sunset in the style of Turner’ is in the UMB. Nicholl painted many watercolours of flowers in an original style that exposed a landscape in the distance; ‘View of wild flowers with the Mussenden temple in the background’ is an exemplar. In 1870 Queen Victoria purchased two of his Ceylon paintings; he presented a volume of sketches of the island to the British Museum print room in 1883. Nicholl, who was married by 1840, had a son and a daughter; the latter, Mary Anne, was also an artist. He died 16 April 1886 at his home at 7 Camberwell Grove, London. A large memorial exhibition comprising over 280 items was held at 55 Donegall Place, Belfast, the following month. Mary Anne Nicholl gave fifty-six of his watercolour studies of plants and trees of Ceylon to the RHA in 1889. The UMB, which hosted a retrospective exhibition in 1973, holds a portrait drawing (1840) of Nicholl by Charles Grey (1808–92); an oil portrait by Grey of 1836 is privately owned.