Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1911

Walter Richard Sickert (31 May 1860  22 January 1942), was an English painter and printmaker who was a member of the Camden Town Group in London. He was an important influence on distinctively British styles of avant-garde art in the 20th century.

Sickert was a cosmopolitan and eccentric who often favoured ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. His oeuvre also included portraits of well-known personalities and images derived from press photographs. He is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism.

Training and early career

Sickert was born in Munich, Germany on 31 May 1860, the eldest son of Oswald Sickert, a Danish-German artist, and his wife, Eleanor Louisa Henry, who was an illegitimate daughter of the British astronomer Richard Sheepshanks.[1] In 1868, following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, the family settled in Britain,[2] where Oswald's work had been recommended by Freiherrin Rebecca von Kreusser to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, who was Keeper of the National Gallery at the time.[3] The family obtained British nationality.[2] The young Sickert was sent to University College School from 1870–1871, before transferring to King's College School, where he studied until the age of 18. Though he was the son and grandson of painters, he first sought a career as an actor; he appeared in small parts in Sir Henry Irving's company, before taking up the study of art in 1881. After less than a year's attendance at the Slade School, Sickert left to become a pupil and etching assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler.[4] Sickert's earliest paintings were small tonal studies painted alla prima from nature after Whistler's example.[5]

Portrait of Sickert in 1884

In 1883, he travelled to Paris and met Edgar Degas, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert's work. He developed a personal version of Impressionism, favouring sombre colouration. Following Degas' advice, Sickert painted in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from "the tyranny of nature".[5] In 1888 Sickert joined the New English Art Club, a group of French-influenced realist artists. Sickert's first major works, dating from the late 1880s, were portrayals of scenes in London music halls. One of the two paintings he exhibited at the NEAC in April 1888, Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, which portrayed a well known music hall singer of the era, incited controversy "more heated than any other surrounding an English painting in the late 19th century".[6] Sickert's rendering was denounced as ugly and vulgar, and his choice of subject matter was deplored as too tawdry for art, as female performers were popularly viewed as morally akin to prostitutes.[7] The painting announced what would be Sickert's recurring interest in sexually provocative themes.

In the late 1880s, Sickert spent much of his time in France, especially in Dieppe, which he first visited in mid-1885, and where his mistress, and possibly his illegitimate son, lived. During this period Sickert began writing art criticism for various publications. Between 1894 and 1904 Sickert made a series of visits to Venice, initially focussing on the city's topography; it was during his last painting trip in 1903–04 that, forced indoors by inclement weather, he developed a distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that he further explored on his return to Britain.[8] The models for many of the Venetian paintings are believed to have been prostitutes, with whom Sickert may have had physical relations.[9]

The Acting Manager or Rehearsal: The End of the Act, (portrait of Helen Carte), c. 1885

Sickert's fascination with urban culture accounted for his acquisition of studios in working-class sections of London, first in Cumberland Market in the 1890s, then in Camden Town in 1905.[10] The latter location provided an event that would secure Sickert's prominence in the realist movement in Britain.[11] On 11 September 1907, Emily Dimmock, a prostitute cheating on her partner, was murdered in her home at Agar Grove (then St Paul's Road), Camden. After sexual intercourse the man had slit her throat open while she was asleep, then left in the morning.[12] The "Camden Town murder" became an ongoing source of prurient sensationalism in the press.[12] For several years Sickert had already been painting lugubrious female nudes on beds, and continued to do so, deliberately challenging the conventional approach to life painting—"The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of 'the nude' represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy"—giving four of them, which included a male figure, the title, The Camden Town Murder, and causing a controversy which ensured attention for his work.[12] These paintings do not show violence, however, but a sad thoughtfulness, explained by the fact that three of them were originally exhibited with completely different titles, one more appropriately being What Shall We Do for the Rent?, and the first in the series, Summer Afternoon.[12]

While the painterly handling of the works inspired comparison to Impressionism, and the emotional tone suggested a narrative more akin to genre painting, specifically Degas's Interior,[13] the documentary realism of the Camden Town paintings was without precedent in British art.[14] These and other works were painted in heavy impasto and narrow tonal range. Sickert's best known work, Ennui (c. 1913), reveals his interest in Victorian narrative genres. The composition, which exists in at least five painted versions and was also made into an etching, depicts a couple in a dingy interior gazing abstractedly into empty space, as though they can no longer communicate with each other.

La Giuseppina, the Ring (1903-1905)

Just before World War I he championed the avant-garde artists Lucien Pissarro, Jacob Epstein, Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. At the same time he founded, with other artists, the Camden Town Group of British painters, named from the district of London in which he lived. This group had been meeting informally since 1905, but was officially established in 1911. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburban life; Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing room as a scene for paintings.[15]

From 1908–1912 and again from 1915–1918, Sickert was an influential teacher at Westminster School of Art, where David Bomberg and Wendela Boreel were among his students. In 1910, he founded a private art school, Rowlandson House, in the Hampstead Road.[16] It lasted until 1914, and for most of that period its co-principal and chief financial supporter was the painter Sylvia Gosse, a former student of Sickert's.[17] He also briefly set up an art school in Manchester where his students included Harry Rutherford.[18]

Late period

After the death of his second wife in 1920, Sickert relocated to Dieppe, where he painted scenes of casinos and café life until his return to London in 1922. In 1924 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA).

In 1926 he suffered an illness, thought to be a slight stroke.[19] In 1927 he abandoned his first name in favour of his middle name, and thereafter chose to be known as Richard Sickert.[20] His style and subject matter also changed: Sickert stopped drawing, and instead painted from snapshots usually taken by his third wife, Thérèse Lessore, or from news photographs. The photographs were squared up for enlargement and transferred to canvas, with their pencil grids plainly visible in the finished paintings.

Seen by many of his contemporaries as evidence of the artist's decline, Sickert's late works are also his most forward-looking, and prefigure the practices of Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter.[21] Other paintings from Sickert's late period were adapted from illustrations by Victorian artists such as Georgie Bowers and John Gilbert. Sickert, separating these illustrations from their original context and painting them in poster-like colours so that the narrative and spatial intelligibility partly dissolved, called the resulting works his "English Echoes".[22]

Sickert painted an informal portrait of Winston Churchill c. 1927.[23] Churchill's wife Clementine introduced him to Sickert, who had been a friend of her family. The two men got along so well that Churchill, whose hobby was painting, wrote to his wife that "He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter."[24]

Henry Tonks. Sodales: Mr Steer and Mr Sickert, 1930

Sickert made his last etching in 1929.[25]

Sickert became a Royal Academician (RA) in March 1934 but resigned from the Academy on 9 May 1935 in protest against the president's refusal to support the preservation of Jacob Epstein's sculptural reliefs on the British Medical Association building in the Strand.[26] In the last decade of his life, he depended increasingly on assistants, especially his wife, for the execution of his paintings.[27]

One of Sickert's closest friends and supporters was newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, who accumulated the largest single collection of Sickert paintings in the world. This collection, with a private correspondence between Sickert and Beaverbook, is in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to having painted Beaverbrook, Sickert painted portraits of notables including Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Hugh Walpole, Valentine Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare, and less formal depictions of Aubrey Beardsley, King George V, and Peggy Ashcroft.

Sickert died in Bath, Somerset in 1942, at the age of 81. He had spent much time in the city in his later years, and many of his paintings depict Bath's varied street scenes. He had been married three times: from 1885 until their divorce in 1899 to Ellen Cobden, a daughter of Richard Cobden; from 1911 until her death in 1920 to Christine Angus; and from 1926 until his death to the painter Thérèse Lessore.[28]

Sickert's sister was Helena Swanwick, a feminist and pacifist active in the women's suffrage movement.

Style and subjects

For his earliest paintings, Sickert followed Whistler's practice of rapid, wet-in-wet execution using very fluid paint. He subsequently adopted a more deliberate procedure of painting pictures in multiple stages, and "attached a great deal of importance to what he called the 'cooking' side of painting".[29] He preferred to paint not from nature but from drawings or, after the mid-1920s, from photographs or from popular prints by Victorian illustrators. After transferring the design to canvas by the use of a grid, Sickert made a rapid underpainting using two colours, which was allowed to dry thoroughly before the final colours were applied. He experimented tirelessly with the details of his method, always with the goal, according to his biographer Wendy Baron, of "paint[ing] quickly, in about two sittings, with the maximum economy and minimum of fuss".[30]

Sickert tended to paint his subjects in series.[31] He is identified particularly with domestic interior scenes, scenes of Venice, music hall and theatre scenes, and portraits. He painted very few still lifes. For his music hall subjects, Sickert often chose complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors.[32] The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art. By emphasising the patterns of wallpaper and architectural decorations, Sickert created abstract decorative arabesques and flattened the three-dimensional space. His music hall pictures, like Degas' paintings of dancers and café-concert entertainers, connect the artificiality of art itself to the conventions of theatrical performance and painted backdrops.

Sickert often professed his distaste for what he termed the "beastly" character of thickly textured paint.[26] In an article he wrote for The Fortnightly Review in 1911, he described his reaction to the paintings of Van Gogh: "I execrate his treatment of the instrument I love, these strips of metallic paint that catch the light like so many dyed straws ... my teeth are set on edge".[26] In response to Alfred Wolmark's work he declared that "thick oil-paint is the most undecorative matter in the world".

Nonetheless, Sickert's paintings of the Camden Town Murder series of c. 1906–1909 were painted in heavy impasto and narrow tonal range, as were numerous other obese nudes in the pre-World War I period in which the fleshiness of the figures is connected to the thickness of the paint—a device that was later adapted by Lucian Freud. The influence of these paintings on successive generations of British artists has been noted in the works of Freud, David Bomberg, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff.[33]

Brighton Pierrots (1915)

In the 1910s and '20s, the dark, gloomy tones of his early paintings gradually brightened,[31] and Sickert juxtaposed unexpected tones with a new boldness in works such as Brighton Pierrots (1915) and Portrait of Victor Lecourt (1921–24). His several self-portraits usually displayed an element of role-playing consistent with his early career as an actor: Lazarus Breaks his Fast (c. 1927) and The Domestic Bully (c. 1935–38) are examples. Sickert's late works display his preference for thinly scrubbed veils of paint, described by Helen Lessore as "a cool colour rapidly brushed over a warm underpainting (or vice versa) on a coarse canvas and in a restricted range allow[ing] the undercoat to 'grin through'".[34]

Sickert insisted on the importance of subject matter in art, saying that "all the greater draughtsmen tell a story",[26] but treated his subjects in a detached manner. According to the painter Frank Auerbach, "Sickert's detachment became increasingly evident in his uninhibited procedures. He made obvious his frequent reliance on snapshots and press photographs, he copied, used and took over the work of other, dead, artists and made extensive use, also, of the services of his assistants who played a large and increasing part in the production of his work."[35]

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, c. 1907
Walter Sickert, The Camden Town Murder, originally titled, What Shall We Do for the Rent?,[12] alternatively, What Shall We Do to Pay the Rent,[36] 1908

Sickert took a keen interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper and believed he had lodged in a room used by the infamous serial killer. He had been told this by his landlady, who suspected a previous lodger. Sickert did a painting of the room and titled it "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom." It shows a dark, melancholy room with most details obscured. This painting now resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery in Manchester.[37]

Although for over 70 years there was no mention of Sickert's being a suspect in the Ripper crimes, in modern times three books have been published whose authors maintain that Sickert was Jack the Ripper or his accomplice.

In 2004, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in its article on Sickert, dismissed any claim that he was Jack the Ripper as "fantasy".[41]

Personal papers

Walter Sickert's personal papers are held at Islington Local History Centre.[42] Additional papers are held at several other archives, particularly the Tate Gallery Archive.[43]

See also


  1. Baron et al. 1992, p. 33.
  2. 1 2 "SICKERT, Walter Richard". Benezit Dictionary of Artists.Subscription or UK public library membership required
  3. "British National Archives". Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  4. Baron et al. 1992, p. 34.
  5. 1 2 Baron et al. 1992, p. 57.
  6. Baron et al. 1992, p. 15-17
  7. Baron et al. 1992, p. 15
  8. Upstone, 2009, p. 9-11
  9. Upstone 2009, p. 47
  10. Upstone 2009, p. 39
  11. Baron et al. 1992, p. 153
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Januszczak, Waldemar. "Walter Sickert - murderous monster or sly self-promoter?" The Times, 4 November 2007. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  13. Baron et al. 1992, p. 208.
  14. Baron et al. 1992, p. 213.
  15. Baron et al. 1992, p. 156.
  16. Baron and Sickert 2006, p. 80.
  17. Hartley 2013, pp. 189-90.
  18. Baron and Sickert 2006, p. 80.
  19. Sickert et al. 1981, p. 29.
  20. Baron et al. 1992, p. 283.
  21. Schwartz, Sanford. "The Master of the Blur", The New York Review of Books, 11 April 2002, p. 16.
  22. Sickert et al. 1981, pp. 102-103.
  23. Sickert et al. 1981, p. 93.
  24. Soames 1999, p. 308–309.
  25. Shone and Curtis 1988, p. 9.
  26. 1 2 3 4 Baron 1980.
  27. Sickert et al. 1981, pp. 97–98.
  28. Shone and Curtis 1988, pp. 8–9.
  29. Shone and Curtis 1988, p. 6.
  30. Baron et al. 1992, p. 132.
  31. 1 2 Shone and Curtis 1988, p. 11.
  32. Baron et al. 1992, p. 16-17
  33. Baron et al. 1992, p. 6.
  34. Sickert et al. 1981, p. 22.
  35. Sickert et al. 1981, p. 7.
  36. "The Camden Town Murder", Fisher Fine Arts Library Image Collection. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  37. "". 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  38. 1 2 "". Retrieved 2014-01-19.
  39. 1 2 Gibbons, Fiachra. "Does this painting by Walter Sickert reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper?", The Guardian, 8 December 2001. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  40. Cornwell, Patricia. Otava, 2004
  41. Wendy Baron, ‘Sickert, Walter Richard (1860–1942)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, January 2008 accessed 5 May 2010,
  42. "Special Collections". Islington Local History Centre. Retrieved 28 Sep 2013.
  43. "Archival material relating to Walter Sickert". UK National Archives.


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