Walter Sickert is hardly a household name. No particular work of art or distinctive style is readily associated with him. Yet the quality and variety of his paintings, some of which are currently on display at Tate Britain, mark him out as an outstanding British portraitist and landscape artist, and an influential figure of the turn of the 20th Century.
Born in Munich in 1860, Sickert and his family left Prussia in 1868 and eventually found their way to London. His father was a painter and draughtsman, but struggled to make a living from it. However, his son learned a lot from him and from other artists that he came to know.
He enrolled at the Slade school of art, but doesn’t appear to have enjoyed his time studying there – perhaps the teaching style was too rigid. He became a dogsbody for the American artist James Whistler, who had a studio in Chelsea, and adopted many of Whistler’s techniques. They would roam the river front together, sketching street scenes.
Sickert had an enduring fascination with popular culture. He acted on the London stage and toured, and his paintings of musical halls caught the public imagination. Sickert was interested in the atmospherics and how to capture them through the use of perspective, reflected light and shade. He gives us the buzz and excitement as the audience settles itself, and then that pinpoint silence just before the performer begins. He gives us a view from the pit, or from a seat up in the gallery. He has us look around at the audience we are a part of. His picture of Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Musical Hall (1888-89, main picture) is reproduced on all the Tate exhibition’s promotional material, but to fully appreciate Sickert’s technical abilities the actual painting really has to be seen. The colours are sumptuous.
But the paintings didn’t sell. Some critics complained of the paintwork and “despaired at the sheer unmitigated ugliness of the predominantly urban subject matter”. Despite being supported by his first wife, Ellen Cobden, Sickert was always teetering on the brink of financial misfortune. He had to find other themes to work with. He took up painting portraits, but struggled to gain commissions. Landscapes of Dieppe and Venice were more profitable.
But Sickert was restless. He was a maverick. “There was a sort of irresistible, if slightly manic, energy about him,” writes Matthew Sturgis in his magisterial biography. “Excitement, drama, self-dramatisation, not untinged with self-mockery.” He wanted to paint real people doing real things, not models. And so we come to the nudes.
Sickert painted his nudes in the early 1900s and sought to present the female body in a realistic manner, fleshy and colourful. He placed his models among the rumpled bedsheets of iron bedsteads in dingy interiors. In time, he ramped up the emotional tension by introducing a second figure into the composition, a clothed man. The intended narrative seems clear: the power dynamic between the two sharply exposed.
The press was scandalised. But Sickert wasn’t finished there. In 1907, returning to his lodgings in Mornington Crescent from a trip abroad, he heard about the brutal murder of a young prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in her rooms in Camden Town. Sickert appropriated the title of the Camden Town Murder for four of his two-figure bedroom compositions, even though none of the pictures represented the facts of the case as known and three had already been shown with different titles. This gave the viewer different options in terms of interpreting the relationship between the figures. It is still unsettling to view today.
Towards the end of his life, which ended in 1942, Sickert sought inspiration from black and white photographs and press cuttings of historic events, such as Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1932. In this depiction of her arrival at Hanworth, almost abstract in its execution, we peer through the gloom and drizzle, past the upheld umbrellas and bobbing heads to catch a glimpse of the fearless aviator.
It’s a snapshot, fleeting but exciting. Indeed, throughout his career it was such heightened moments that Sickert expressed so well: the disassociation between man and wife “trapped” in their living room in Ennui; the trapeze artist as she teeters on her stand, arm outstretched to grab her bar; the miner kissing his wife after returning from a stay-down strike in the pit (their shared sense of relief is palpable). Sickert wants us to create our own stories from those tantalising impressions of life he so skilfully sets down on canvas. Do go and find yours.
The Walter Sickert exhibition is now on at Tate Britain and will close on 18 September. Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Musical Hall is from a private collection. Photograph by James Man.
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