Harold Nicolson

black and white photograph of Harold Nicholson

Harold Nicolson

by Bassano Ltd
half-plate film negative, 6 June 1939
Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974
Photographs Collection
NPG x26938

made available with a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode

National Portrait Gallery London © National Portrait Gallery https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw165759/Harold-Nicolson?

Harold Nicolson


Tehran, Iran


Sissinghurst, United Kingdom



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Authored By: Caroline Z. Krzakowski

Edited By: Helen Southworth

Harold George Nicolson was born in 1886 in Tehran and died in 1968 at Sissinghurst Castle. During his career as a diplomat and writer, Nicolson published over twenty books, six literary biographies, two novels, a study of biography, as well as books about diplomatic practice and his famous diaries. He attended Balliol College, Oxford University, from 1904 to 1907, and from 1909 to 1929 held various positions in the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations. In addition to his publishing career, Nicolson was active in public life as Member of Parliament for Leicester, and a member of the Board of Governors of the BBC. With Vita Sackville-West, whom he married in 1913, he bought Sissinghurst Castle, where together they planned and tended the now-famous gardens protected by the National Trust. They had two sons, Ben, an art historian, and Nigel, a writer and publisher. Nigel co-founded the publishing company Weidenfield and Nicolson, wrote about his parents in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), edited his parents’ letters, as well as his father’s diaries.

In the 1920s, Harold Nicolson began writing literary biographies, publishing Verlaine (1921), Tennyson (1923), and Byron (1924) with Constable and Swinburne (1926) with Macmillan. Virginia Woolf particularly admired Nicolson’s playful semi-autobiographical collection of portraits Some People (1927), writing to Nicolson: “I must scribble a line in haste to say how absolutely delightful I think it—how I laughed out loud to myself again and again” (The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3, 392). She praised Nicolson’s combination of autobiographical and fictional material: “I can’t make out how you combine the advantages of fact and fiction as you do. I am also jealous—I can’t help it—that all these things should have happened to you, not me” (The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3, 392). However, she was critical of his biography of Tennyson, writing to Pernel Strachey that “I’ve been trying to read Tennyson by Harold Nicolson. I threw it onto the floor with disgust” (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 62). Nonetheless, Woolf still valued Nicolson’s critical admiration of her novel The Waves, recording in her diary “a note, to say I am all trembling with pleasure—cant go on with my Letter [to a Young Poet]-because Harold Nicolson has just rung up to say The Waves is a masterpiece.” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2, 47).

Nicolson’s only publication with the Hogarth Press was his study of biography, The Development of English Biography, published in 1928. As J.H. Willis points out, Leonard Woolf commissioned the study from Nicolson for the series Lectures on Literature. The volume was a success, and Leonard Woolf “wrote to Herbert Read that he thought Nicolson’s work was ‘nearest in form’ to the lecture format he had in mind than any other work in the series” (138).

In the 1930s, after formally leaving his position at the Foreign Office, Nicolson turned to writing about diplomacy. His study of the Paris Peace Conference, Peacemaking 1919 (1933) combined historical analysis with his personal diaries from the period. His celebrated study Diplomacy, first published on the eve of World War II, was edited and reissued three times to reflect international changes and developments, and he gave the Chichele lecture at All Soul’s College, Oxford, published as Evolution of Diplomatic Method in 1954.

Drinkwater, Derek, and Oxford University Press. Sir Harold Nicolson and International Relations: The Practitioner as Theorist. Oxford University Press, 2005.Lees-Milne, James. Harold Nicolson: A Biography. Archon Books, 1982.

Nicolson, Nigel. Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West And Harold Nicolson. Phoenix, 1993.

---., Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

Otte, T.G. “Nicolson, Sir Harold George (1886-1968)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004   [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35239, accessed 13 Oct 2008]

Rose, Norman. Harold Nicolson. Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Benjamin Constant. Doubleday, 1949.

Curzon: The Last Phase, 1919-1925. Houghton, 1934.

Diaries, and Letters. Volume. I: 1930-1939, Volume II: 1939-1945, Volume III: 1945-1962. Ed. by Nigel Nicolson, Atheneum, 1966–68.

Dwight Morrow. Harcourt, 1935.

Friday Mornings 1941-1944. Constable, 1944.

Future of the English-Speaking World. Jackson, Son & Co, 1949.

Good Behaviour. Constable, 1955.

Helen’s Tower. Constable, 1937.

Journey to Java. Constable, 1957.

King George V: His Life and Reign. Doubleday, 1952.

Marginal Comment: January 6-August 4, 1939. Constable, 1939.

Monarchy. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.

People and Things. Constable, 1931.

Poetry of Byron. Oxford UP, 1943.

Politics in the Train. Constable, 1936.

Portrait of a Diplomatist: Sir Arthur Nicolson, First Lord Carnock. Houghton, 1930.

Public Faces. Constable, 1932.

Saint-Beuve. Doubleday. 1957.

Small Talk. Harcourt, 1937.

Sweet Waters. Constable, 1921.

The Age of Reason 1700-1789. Constable, 1960.

The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity, 1812-1822. Harcourt, 1946.

The Desire to Please: A Story of Hamilton Rowen and the United Irishmen. Harcourt, 1943.

The English Sense of Humor: An Essay. Dropmore, 1946.

The Meaning of Prestige (Rede Lecture). Macmillan, 1937.

(With Victoria Sackville-West) Saint Joan of Arc. M. Joseph, 1948.

Tennyson’s Two Brothers. Macmillan, 1947.

Why Britain Is at War. Penguin, 1939.