by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private Collection/Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
The Iron Bedstead by Walter Sickert, c.1906

Shining Light on a Dark Star

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 August 2022


In 1909 the French critic Félix Monod described Walter Sickert's palette as 'exquisite in its sullied tones, a mix of greens and blacks, of muddish green, of caviar grey, decaying, smothered blues and pinks, reddish-brown, greyish-brown and dead lilac, it has been steeped in the winters of London and in the rotten waters of the Thames.'

By this time the painter had won notoriety in Britain for applying this disturbing cocktail of colours to a series of female nudes depicted in dingy rooms on iron bedsteads, to some of which he opportunistically lent the title 'The Camden Town Murder', an obvious reference to the unsolved killing of a young prostitute in that then run-down working-class district of London in 1907.

The paintings represented a full-frontal attack on what Sickert characterized as Britain's 'prurient puritanism' and admirably fulfilled their intention by attracting general outrage and condemnation in the press. Later these paintings and the artist's known interest in the case led to his being suspected of being Jack the Ripper, but no convincing proof has ever emerged.

However, while these nudes rightly remain among Sickert's most well-known productions, in reality they only occupied the artist over roughly a decade from around 1902 to 1912, in a varied career that spanned nearly 60 years, as is amply illustrated by an absorbing and informative exhibition, Walter Sickert, at Tate Britain.

Sickert was born in Munich in 1860, the son and grandson of Danish artists and of an Anglo-Irish mother who had been raised in Dieppe on the Normandy coast. The family moved to England when Walter was eight. Despite manifesting early sketching talents he was 'stage-struck' and determined to become an actor. After four years making little progress in this field, he won a place at the Slade School of Fine Art. However, he was there just a few months, before becoming the studio assistant and informal student of James McNeill Whistler.

Even being something of a dogsbody to the American artist could prove advantageous, as when in 1883 Whistler dispatched Sickert to Paris to deliver his 'Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1' (Whistler's Mother) to the Salon. The American artist gave Sickert a letter of introduction to his friend Degas, who encouraged the young artist to broaden the range of his subject matter and to work paintings up in the studio with the aid of numerous sketches made on the spot, which became a life-long practice.

Degas had been painting theatrical, ballet and music-hall scenes in Paris since the 1870s and inspired Sickert to follow suit in London's music halls, of which he was already an habitué. There were nearly 400 of these venues in London by the 1870s and the Old Bedford, as it was affectionately called, in Camden Town became a favourite. At first Sickert concentrated on depicting some of the most popular artistes doing their acts on stage but, as Arthur Symonds observed in 1892, 'in the music hall the audience is part of the performance', and Sickert increasingly turned his attention to capturing the audience and their reactions to the acts.

The artist also intermittently did portraits, but was unwilling to adjust his distinctive style of painting to meet the expectations of most sitters and no lucrative commissions came his way. He later affected a rather patronizing view of the genre, writing in 1910 that 'the portrait-painter is not free - he fills a useful and honourable place in a world of supply and demand'. Nonetheless, Sickert executed a series of memorable self-portraits and portraits of a number of people he knew, such as his striking image of the consumptive Aubrey Beardsley in 1894.

By 1898 Sickert was writing to a friend that he could not bear the prospect of another winter in London, saying: 'It is too dark and life is too short.' He decamped to Dieppe, where he was to spend the next seven years. The move proved highly productive both artistically and economically. There he got to know the well-connected portraitist Jacques-Emile Blanche, through whom he met such artists as Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Puvis de Chavannes and the owners of the leading Paris galleries, Durant-Ruel and Bernheim-Jeune. Monet's Rouen Cathedral series encouraged him to paint groups of pictures around the same themes. Sickert's townscapes, boldly lit with his trademark chiaroscuro, of Dieppe and Venice, to which he made several extended excursions, were popular with buyers and brought some financial stability.

He had the first of several one-man shows in Paris in 1900 and exhibited there fifteen times between 1900 and 1909. He showed in the French sections of various international exhibitions, including at the Venice Biennale in 1903. He continued to exhibit in France regularly even after he returned to England in 1905.

And it was with a French artist that the critic François Fosca would later perceptively link him in 1930, writing: 'If there is a French painter with whom Sickert can be compared, it is Bonnard…Dismissive of any kind of system and fundamentally independent, they never cease to be seduced by the perpetually changing spectacle of everyday life.'

In Britain at this time the nude was a tricky subject for artists, with brigades of freelance moralists constantly on the lookout for perceived obscenity. But in France the genre was a fertile field for experimentation, with the Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauves all applying their own visions to it. Sickert painted his first nude in Dieppe in around 1902-04. He followed the example of Degas and Bonnard, who often presented their nudes in an unashamedly erotic, even voyeuristic, manner in ordinary domestic settings.

On returning to London in 1905, he took up the genre with more determination, although alternating these pictures with music-hall scenes and townscapes, which he continued to paint on summer visits to Dieppe. While Sickert maintained he wanted his nudes to give the sensation of 'a page torn from the book of life', as with Degas, a great deal of preparation was devoted to creating the illusion of capturing chance moments. The settings and lighting for Sickert's Camden Town nudes were carefully contrived by the artist, aided by his youthful theatrical experience, often using his own furniture as props for each mise-en-scène, staged in various lodging-house rooms.

The thinking behind this approach was described by Sickert in an article of 1910, in which he wrote of an imaginary artist's model he called Tilly Pullen: 'Let her leave the studio and climb the first dirty little staircase in the first shabby little house...Follow her into her kitchen, or, better still, for the artist has the divine privilege of omnipresence, into her bedroom; and now Tilly is become the stuff of which the Parthenon was made, or Dürer, or any Rembrandt.'

In the autumn of 1914, Sickert produced a remarkable image, 'The Soldiers of King Albert the Ready', from scaled-up newspaper photographs, to record the heroic defence of Liège against the German invaders, combining Impressionist painting techniques and a pioneering use of images from the daily press.

Thereafter, he turned increasingly to images garnered from newspapers to paint subjects as varied as portraits of King George V, with his racing manager at Aintree, Edward VIII, Degas, the writer Hugh Walpole, Rear Admiral Lumsden; scenes from Shakespearian theatre productions; Sir Thomas Beecham conducting; Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell, based on publicity images for a Hollywood gangster movie, and high-stepping chorus girls; Sarah Earhart's arrival at Hanworth Aerodrome during a downpour after her solo transatlantic flight; a Welsh miner, emerging from underground after a 'stay-down' strike, kissing his wife; and a bride in her wedding dress descending a flight of steps in Pimlico.

In 1924, this former enfant terrible's election as Associate Member of the Royal Academy came as a surprise that, in the words of the Manchester City News, 'could not have been greater had Trotsky been embraced by the Carlton Club'. By the end of the decade, the Daily Mail was describing Sickert as 'our greatest living artist'. He was elected a full RA in 1934 but resigned the following year in protest at the President's refusal to support the preservation of a Jacob Epstein frieze on a public building.

After his death in 1942, while he was largely forgotten in France, Sickert's reputation in Britain remained high and he exerted varying degrees of influence on post-war British artists, such as Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. When David Hockney arrived at the Royal College of Art in the late 1950s Sickert was still, the young art student later recorded, 'the great god'. But since then it has become Sickert's fate to be valued primarily as 'an artists' artist' - in view of which this excellent exhibition provides a timely opportunity for a wider public to discover his many talents anew.

Walter Sickert; Tate Britain, London, 28 April - 18 September 2022; Petit Palais, Paris, 14 October 2022 - 29 January 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024