Andrew Nicholl was born in Belfast and worked as an apprentice to a printer, but showed an interest in painting and drawing from early on. After spending some time in London he returned to Ireland to exhibit at the RHA, and was elected a full member of the Academy in 1860. He moved between Belfast, Dublin and London and for a time taught painting and drawing at the Colombo Academy in Ceylon.
As Walter Strickland observed, Andrew Nicholl was devoted to art from his boyhood, and 'won a reputation as a landscape painter in his native town.' He would later be known as the most talented, renowned and prolific topographical Irish artist of the nineteenth century.
His training was important. He worked as a talented apprentice at the printing business of F.D. Finley where he was under the instruction of his elder brother William. While in London, he spent considerable time at the Dulwich College Gallery, where he copied paintings on show. He admired the work of J.M.W. Turner. Jeanne Sheehy has written; 'Most of his work is interesting, but particularly exciting is the series in which wildflowers in the foreground form a screen through which we dimly perceive the landscape. The paintings have a sharpness and naïveté which is totally captivating.' He is evidently a master of the watercolour medium.
Combination views of wildflowers and landscape were a speciality of Nicholl's and feature a number of locations including; Newcastle, Fairhead, Howth, Bray, Carlingford, Lough Swilly, Ramelton, Rathmullan, Dunluce Castle, and Downhill Mussendon Temple. This style of depiction surely came from Nicholl's interest in topographical art, combined with his interest in botanical illustration, which became popular and refined in terms of accuracy in the eighteenth century due to advances in the printing process, of which Nicholl had first-hand experience. In Ireland's Painters 1600-1940, Crookshank and Glin, write 'In those near-surrealist watercolours...there is an originality which makes them amongst the most haunting...Irish paintings of the early nineteenth century. These are his masterpieces.' John Hewitt observes '...his originality appears most strongly [in his] landscape of distant hills, foregrounded by a wedge or bank of roadside wild flowers. By scratch and scrape of the surface of his paper,...for the spray-frayed tips of breaking waves, he gave his flowers and grasses an illusory precision and finish.' The 'sgraffitto' or 'scraping out' technique that Hewitt mentions is the ideal device to capture the delicacy and fine lines within the wildflowers. He was a highly prolific artist and the Ulster Museum alone has almost 400 works by Andrew Nicholl.