…is the famous phrase in E.M.Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’. I thought of the line yesterday when visiting Tate Britain’s Summer exhibition on Walter Sickert (1860 -1942). A pupil of James Macneill Whistler, friend of Edgar Degas and member of the New English Art Club as well as founding member of the Camden Town Group, Sickert seems to have been the most connected of painters. Forster was twenty years younger (1879 – 1970 ) and, similarly, a member of groups, in his case, the Apostles and then the Bloomsbury Group. Forster went on to pre-eminence, rather more than Sickert did, although the visual artist’s influence is felt, as the exhibition demonstrates, on generations of later painters, especially in England.
The exhibition is also good in showing the young Sickert’s obvious admiration for both his teacher and for Degas. He attempts drawing in Whistler’s style and paints seascapes and urban landscapes and, later in life, attempts the unusual compositional style of Degas. The latter is most evident in the unusual perspectives in pictures, like Trapeze ( so very close to Degas’ Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando ) and the subject matter – the circus, the music hall and the demi-monde of Paris and London. When considering the paintings, comparisons favour the Frenchman ( and, indeed, the American ) in my view. That said, Sickert produced some wonderful art, very much in his own style. I especially liked his music hall paintings, where the effects of light and the gilded, glistening interiors of the theatres are captured so well and his urban landscapes.
I liked that he looked at and painted the audience as often as he painted those performing, especially the Gallery paintings, which show the crowds in ‘the gods’ reacting to those below. He chose to paint the music hall, rather than the more prestigious venues and concentrated on urban life, purchasing studios in the 1890s and early 1900s in working class areas the better to draw and paint everyday existence. I also like his way with a single light source, in evidence in the ‘music hall’ pictures but also in little gems like The Acting Manager, a small sketch for a larger painting, found near the beginning of the exhibition.
I hadn’t realised what a writerly artist Sickert was, with his critical writings for various publications and his championing of young artists, including Lucien Pissaro ( son of Camille ), Jacob Epstein, Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis before the outbreak of World War One. He set up the Camden Town Group in the area where he lived and worked from the mid 1900s and these artists, together with others, like Sylvia Gosse, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman created a documentary realist style. This was certainly the style of his own Camden Town Murders paintings, renamed after sensationalist and prurient newspaper interest in a somewhat tawdry murder. They originally had sadder and more thoughtful names, like What Shall We Do for the Rent? but were depictions of female nudes with fully or partly clothed men.
I liked the solo nudes of ordinary women, often middle-aged and recumbent in non-classical poses, which, clearly, were influential upon later artists, most notably Lucien Freud. Sickert’s heavy impasto style is a forerunner of Bomberg, Auerbach and Gerhardt Richter. I also enjoyed his later paintings with more use of colour, like Brighton Pierrots and his interest in using photographs and photography in his art. In the twenties Sickert mentored and championed the artists in the East London Group; often untutored, working class individuals with little formal education. He encouraged and showed alongside them.
Unfortunately, I gleaned little about the man from this exhibition. It was only when researching this article that I discovered the generous patron, the committed supporter of the ordinary and the working class, the teacher ( at Westminster, where David Bomberg was one of his pupils ) and, ultimately, the establishment man – he was President of the Royal Society of British Artists and a Royal Academician, though, typically, he resigned his RA status on a point of principle. I had thought of Sickert as a flamboyant, self-publicising former actor, now I think of him as a guiding force, a helping hand to modern British painting. I don’t know why the exhibition didn’t bring that out more. Perhaps there was a reluctance to focus on the man – in the past much has been made of Sickert’s own interest in Jack the Ripper and Patricia Cornwell’s claim that he was the infamous Jack. Perhaps the curators wanted to concentrate instead on the paintings – entirely understandable.
This is an exhibition worth going to, but I suggest that, if, like me, your knowledge of Sickert is superficial, you read a little about him before you go. The exhibition runs until 18th September, tickets cost £18.