In 1894, Scottish artist James Pryde teamed with English artist William Nicholson to create posters under the pseudonym "the Beggarstaff Brothers" (a name they found on a torn sack of grain in an old stable yard).

Pryde and Nicholson brought very different perspectives to their partnership. Pryde was tall and heavy, while Nicholson was short and thin. Pryde grew up in a noisy, eccentric household of "violent views" while Nicholson was raised in a "gentle, well-bred, well-mannered atmosphere." Pryde was outspoken and gregarious, while Nicholson was quiet and detached. Pryde worked very casually while Nicholson was serious and driven. Recalled Pryde, "our opinions on artistic matters differed widely."

If those weren't enough causes for friction, Nicholson fell in love with Pryde's younger sister against her mother's wishes. Colin Campbell's excellent book on the Beggarstaffs reports that "after a courtship conducted largely, it seems, among the coalsacks in the cellar of the Pryde's Bloomsbury home, the couple married in secret at Ruslip on 25 April 1893."

Who could ask for a better foundation for an artistic partnership?

Yet, their clashing perspectives seem to have stimulated them to abandon the dominant styles of their day in favor of a radical new approach. The Beggarstaffs transformed the history of poster art with a series of bold, simple designs using flat images and silhouettes.

In 1896, an arts magazine interviewed the Brothers on their technique:
One of us gets an idea, said Pryde. We talk it over, the other suggests an addition, the matter is reconsidered, perhaps shelved away for months. Finally we draw the design very roughly with charcoal on big sheets of paper, and then place the lines and masses in their places on the groundwork, which is generally of ordinary brown paper.
Like Matisse after them, the Biggerstaffs found that it helped simplify their designs if they worked with shapes cut out of colored paper.

Not surprisingly, Pryde maintained that a pen knife was best for this purpose while Nicholson favored scissors.

The Beggarstaff team only stayed together for three short years. They were a commercial failure, as clients were not sure what to make of these bold new images. But their designs became hugely influential with artists in Europe and America, and helped usher in the Early Modern era which replaced the highly ornate art nouveau and arts and crafts movements.

Pryde and Nicholson separated, turning to painting and other artistic pursuits to earn a living. They never again succeeded in achieving the quality they found during their brief but remarkable collaboration.

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