Born in the small rural Wisconsin town of Barton, Harley lived a peripatetic life. As a young child, he accompanied his family to Lincoln, Nebraska where he found great excitement in the roaming herds of buffalo and Native Americans. It was in these years that a talent for drawing was discovered. In 1870, after several years of hardship, his father moved the family back to Wisconsin.
At the age of 11 he became a water boy for the railroad line being built from Milwaukee to his birthplace of Barton. While his family moved to the First Ward in Milwaukee, he remained with his grandparents in Barton and proudly paid board despite his meager earnings. Eventually he moved to join his family and began school at the First Ward schoolhouse. At this time his uncle engaged a drawing teacher to give him lessons to encourage his talent.
Nevertheless, the need to earn a living remained paramount and he was employed by a “third class” wood engraver. That led to an apprenticeship with the Milwaukee firm Marr & Richards, where he worked for three years drawing on wood. This would have led to a position as an engraver, but during his apprenticeship Nichols realized that drawing, rather than engraving, was where his true talent lay.
The subsequent years included many moves, from Milwaukee to Chicago, and later to New York where he met with Professor Packard who encouraged Nichols to pursue a career as an illustrator at a European school.
Nichols left for Munich in October, 1885 to begin studies at the Royal Academy where he became a member of the American Club and socialized with Carl von Marr, the club’s president.
In 1893 he illustrated the World’s Fair issue of Harper’s Weekly. He worked in New York, mostly in advertising. He helped organize the New York Water Color Club. He accepted an offer to work in London and do illustrations. He soon returned to the United States and settled in California where he was inspired by the scenery of Yosemite, Monterey, San Juan Capistrano and other locations in southern California.
Nichols moved to Laguna Beach where he lived until his death in 1939.
1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) illustration for Harper’s
© 10/23/2007 Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, Wisconsin 6/2/2010