Walter Sickert plaque, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

A protean character

Walter Richard Sickert was a natural cosmopolitan. Born in Munich of a Danish-German father and Anglo-Irish mother, he had a full command of English, German and French, and later spoke good Italian. He was also protean, gifted as an actor, raconteur, writer, teacher, printmaker and – above all – painter. In old age he was even apt to change his appearance and as from 1927 he wished to be known as Richard Sickert.  (See portrait at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Sickert_par_J_E_Blanche_1898.jpg)

Curiously, his father, a painter and woodcut illustrator, discouraged him from taking up art. 

This led him into the theatre world, with minor roles in several touring productions such as Henry V. He was able to recite Shakespeare by heart years later and the great actress Peggy Ashcroft, a friend of his, called him “a tremendous Shakespearean”. 

Acting into art

Still very keen on art, he enrolled on a year’s “General Course” at the Slade School in 1881. In 1882 he left the stage and was apprenticed to the American-born painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler as a studio assistant and dogsbody; Whistler advised him that his course was a waste of time. While in Paris, on Whistler’s behalf, in 1883 he was introduced to the great painter Edgar Degas, who subsequently led him to paint from drawings made in situ instead of from nature like Whistler. He also encouraged Sickert to depict realistic subjects such as urban scenes in Paris and Dieppe, and forms of entertainment such as music halls and the circus, and told him draughtsmanship was more fruitful than colour; the noted art critic David Sylvester may have been unaware of that point when he wrote “Sickert sees like a draughtsman, and then builds a painting round his drawing.”

With Degas’s realism, however, Sickert combined elements of Whistler’s more ethereal atmospheres. His reputation subsequently grew as a painter of low-toned landscapes. He insisted, incidentally, on the correct pronunciation of “Duh-gas”, not “Dayga”. (See Degas’s self-portrait at https://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_252303/Edgar-Degas/Self-Portrait-3)

“A French painter”

Sickert declared in 1902 “I am a French painter” and thought about being naturalised French. He was especially fond of Dieppe, which attracted various British artists and writers in the summer (Boulogne had attracted Dickens among others). He first went there when his family left Munich, bound for London, in 1868; his mother had been to school there. Degas stayed with him and his first wife, Ellen (daughter of Richard Cobden), in 1885. Sickert’s paintings of Dieppe include townscapes, harbour scenes and views of the church of Saint-Jacques; he was even called “the Canaletto of Dieppe”.  (See Sickert’s Dieppe Races (1920-26)’, in the style of Degas at https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/explore-art/items/1945P51/dieppe-races)

Coming home to Camden

Sickert lived in Dieppe from 1898 to 1905. As from 1895 he also made several visits to Venice, painting St Mark’s and other buildings. His most decisive move came on returning to London in 1905. He deserted his previous area, Chelsea, but had studios in north London, notably at 6 Mornington Crescent in Camden Town, where he also lived; at that time, the district was insalubrious. His life and work in the period may be divided into three major parts.

6 Mornington Crescent, with plaque, (c) Paul Guest. 2021

First, he painted four works entitled The Camden Town Murder, inspired by the murder in September 1907 of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, aged 22. The best-known one is The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do for the Rent? Critics have not always taken their titles seriously: ignoring them in a review, Roger Fry remarked that Sickert, with whom he had a fractious relationship, is “almost indifferent to what he paints, his care being altogether for the manner of it”. He did, however, paint numerous prostitutes with harsh realism, not only at Mornington Crescent but also in Venice, and unlike Degas he liked scenes which might suggest a narrative. He was also fascinated by murder. Indeed it has been claimed that he was Jack the Ripper; this claim is hard to believe and has been largely discredited, though he delighted in claiming that the Ripper had lived in the room above his.

Sickert, The Camden Town Murder, or What Shall We Do For the Rent?, (c) Yale Center for British Art

Also in 1907, Sickert enabled artists to gather at 19 Fitzroy Street near a studio of his, where they could exhibit their work and try to sell it to a select clientele – hence the formation of the Fitzroy Street Group, reflecting the spirit of his dictum (1910): “The more our art is serious, the more will it tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts … while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing-room.” In effect, he anticipated mid-1950s kitchen-sink drama. The group was also clearly influenced, however, by the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin in using strong flat colours. 

In 1911 Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of artists who gathered at his studio in the district (interestingly, like the Old Masters, he employed studio assistants). One of its members, Walter Bayes, related that Sickert chose its name because “the district had been so watered with his tears that something important must sooner or later spring from its soil.” Comprising sixteen men (sadly, women were excluded) and equally true to his 1910 dictum, this group is the second major aspect of his Camden Town activities. It held only three exhibitions, disbanding in 1913. His age (51 in 1911), considerable experience and towering reputation may have contributed to its short life. (For fuller information see the Camden Guides blog, in Sources below.) 

“Up in the gallery”: the Bedford Music Hall pictures

The third major aspect of Sickert’s Camden Town, and perhaps the most striking, is the way it united his art with his passion for the theatre. In 1934 he declared: “The stage, which is perhaps the most real and effective university of literature, has every interest in drawing closer to the brush.” His chief interest was in the music hall. By the 1860s, this had become an institution in its own right with 200 small music halls, catering mainly for working-class audiences. Among those he painted, starting in the mid- to late 1880s, were Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties and Collins’s in Islington Green. He also painted such scenes in Paris. Most noteworthy here, though, is the Bedford Theatre at 93-95 Camden High Street. (See https://www.google.com/urlsa=i&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.arthurlloyd.co.uk%2FBedford.htm&psig}

The Art Establishment in Sickert’s time considered music halls too tawdry and vulgar as a subject for art. Provocative as ever though also serious, he delighted in painting both the Old Bedford (1861, destroyed by fire in 1896) and the New (1899-1959), and called the theatre “my old love”. The picture referenced below displays superb lighting and architectural detail. It evokes the Louis Quatorze style of the interior, so appropriate for the Francophile Sickert, and the harmony between radiant gold decor, including friezes and panels, and richly ruby-coloured curtains. Above the middle box there is a magnificent canopy, flanked by two imposing caryatids.  (See https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sickert-the-new-bedford-n06174%23:~:text%3DThis%2520theatre%2520in%2520Camden%2520Town,architecture%2520which%2520dwarfs%2520the%2520audience.)

Another picture shows a child singer, Little Dot Hetherington, performing a very popular music hall number, with the refrain “The boy I love is up in the gallery, The boy I love is looking now at me, There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief, As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.” This is closely associated with Marie Lloyd, who also appeared at the Bedford. (See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Dot_Hetherington_at_the_Old_Bedford.png)

The painting is most remarkable for its dramatic chiaroscuro effects and the singer’s pose (strikingly, Sickert criticised the Pre-Raphaelites’ “absence of convincing light and shade”). Her irradiated left arm appears to point towards two cherub figures above the gallery. This recalls a statue, in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, of the prophet Elijah whose right arm points to an inscription about the coming of The King (Christ). That is not a parody, and apparently not the picture’s only religious allusion (and might the light suggest sanctity?). 

These two works (there are also prints of them) demonstrate Sickert’s artistic versatility and penetrating observation.

An artistic legacy

Labelled both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, Sickert tends to defy classification; in 1910 he published a somewhat critical article entitled “Impressionism”. Whether or not he defies classification, his complete absence from some recent art history books – even on modern art – is, I think, shocking. Besides being a great artist, he has a significant legacy. This is clearest in terms of figurative painting; among his diverse effective heirs are David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj and Howard Hodgkin, along with Victor Pasmore, William Coldstream and others teaching at the Euston Road School (1937). 

Most surprisingly, he even influenced Winston Churchill – as a painter. The two men became firm friends on their first meeting (1927) and subsequently exchanged portraits; Churchill followed Sickert by working from photographs. Politically, however, Sickert was quite unlike Churchill. He seems to have flirted with socialism by 1910 but later looked favourably on Mussolini and Hitler, who impressed him as he was supposedly an artist. There is no evidence, though, that he had any fascist sympathies.

The late art critic Robert Hughes considered Sickert “not just a footnote to, but an essential part of, the visual culture of the past eighty years”. Moreover, he secured a place for Camden Town in the history of British art. 

Sources

Wendy Baron, “Sickert, Walter Richard” and “Camden Town Group”, in The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (1996)

Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert. A Life (2005) – 787 pages

David Sylvester, About Modern Art. Critical Essays 1948-2000 (new ed. 2002)

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Sickert

Studiointernational https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/sickert-today-degas–sickert-and-toulouse-lautrec-london-and-paris-1870-1910

Pallant House https://pallant.org.uk/perspectives-sickert-in-dieppe/

Tate https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/lisa-tickner-walter-sickert-the-camden-town-murder-and-tabloid-crime-r1104355 (long article)

Camden Guides blogs https://camdenguides.com/ > Blogs > Arts > The Camden Town Group

Visual Arts Cork http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/camden-town-group.htm

St Andrews University https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/bitstream/10023/1962/3/WilliamRoughPhDThesis.pdf (Title: Walter Richard Sickert and the Theatre, c.1880-c.1940)

Arthur Lloyd Theatre site http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Bedford.htm

Felicity Lowde Blog http://felicity-lowde-research.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-boy-i-love-is-up-in-gallery.html

Ijaahnet http://ijaahnet.com/vol-8-no-2-december-2020-abstract-2-ijaah – On Sickert’s music-hall scenes; see pp. 19-22.

Featured image at the top of this page is the Blue Plaque on 6, Mornington Crescent. (c) Penny Burns, 2021

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