6 February 2014
The reputation of Walter Sickert, 1860-1942, has steadily increased in recent years and the advocacy and exhibition catalogues of Richard Shone have certainly contributed to this. Sickert is still relatively little known among the general public although his series of paintings of run-down tenements in Camden Town after a grisly murder has been of interest to social historians of the period.
This book describes the artist’s life and work, and critically assesses the artist’s reputation by considering works from all periods of his oeuvre. It accepts his egotism, eccentric and combative attitude, and lack of concern for contemporary critical opinion and the prevailing attitudes of the art establishment. The one contemporary artist with whom he perhaps shares characteristics is Toulouse-Lautrec, whom Sickert disliked. Labelling him as an Impressionist, a Realist or an intimiste, sharing elements with Bonnard and Vuillard, offers only a general opinion of the artist’s style and fails completely to explain the coldness and absence of emotion in his work.
The main disadvantage of this book is that only a minority, 40 out of 100, of the works are in colour. Sickert’s works, not least those of Campden Town, are sparsely lit and deep in shadow so trying to distinguish the content of the canvas from a series of black, white and grey shades and shapes is almost impossible, “La Hollandaise”, c. 1906, and “Le Cabinet de Toilette”, 1906, being examples. Even when works such as “Nude Reclining on a Bed”, c. 1904-5, are shown in colour it is hard to appreciate fully the artist’s dark skin tones – which is a motivation to visit galleries, museums, and indeed, exhibitions to see his work.
Following an Introduction, Shone presents a series of informative chapters entitled: ‘The Making of a Reputation’, ‘The Return to London’, ‘The Master of Campden Town’, ‘Town, King and Country’, ‘Sickert’s Later Years’ and ‘Late Years’. There is a Selected Bibliography and an Index.
It is clear that Sickert was extremely precocious in his love of languages, literature, drama, acting [his first choice for a career], music and, not least, art. After giving up his ideas of a professional acting career, Sickert devoted himself to art and attended the Slade School before leaving to study with Whistler through whom he met Degas who became his life-long inspiration. Sickert’s love of theatre is evident in works such as “Minnie Cunnigham at the Old Bedford”, c. 1889, “The Gallery of the Old Bedford”, c. 1894, “Le Gaieté Rochechouart”, 1906, “The Brighton Pierrots”, 1915, “The Plaza Tiller Girls”, 1928, a detail from which is illustrated on the front cover, right through to “High Steppers”, c. 1938-39.
In 1898, the artist moved to Dieppe where he painted works such as “The Bathers, Dieppe”, and “The Statue of Duquesne, Dieppe”, both 1902. On his return to London, painted his famous series based on the ‘Campden Town Murder’ of 1907, including “What Shall we do for the Rent”, c. 1908, “Dawn, Campden Town”, c. 1909, and “L’Affaire de Campden Town”, 1909, and founded the Fitzroy Street Group in 1908. He led the Campden Town Group, 1911-1913, and painted its quintessential work, “Ennui”, c. 1914. The artist hoped to have served in the Great War as a war artist but “The Soldiers of King Albert the Ready”, 1914, was composed in the studio with Belgian soldiers as models.
During the war, the artist painted landscapes, “The Shop, Changford”, c. 1915-16 and “Queen’s Road Station, Bayswater”, c. 1916, and genre works, “Sinn Feiner”, c. 1916. After the war and his wife’s death, Sickert returned to Dieppe, “Vernet’s Dieppe”, c. 1920-22, “The Bar Parlour”, 1922, and “Victor Lecour”, 1922-24. In the 1920s, he painted a series of biblical works, “Lazarus Breaks his Fast. Self-Portrait”, c. 1927, “The Servant of Abraham”, c. 1928-29, and “The Raising of Lazarus”, c. 1929-32, in which he includes self-portraits.
The artist’s late portraits, “Hugh Walpole”, 1929, “Lady in Blue (Portrait of Lady Berwick)”, 1933, “Viscount Castlerose”, 1935, “Sir Thomas Beecham Conducting”, c. 1935, and “H. M. King Edward VIII”, 1936 were often painted from photographs. “The Wedding”, c. 1931-32, which crops the groom, and “The Miner (Black and White)”, c. 1935-36, show his abilities were undimmed into his 70s.
This book does a good job in presenting the artist’s work within its chronological context, showing that he was so much more than a painter of theatres, sordid life and violent death. For the text 5*, taking into consideration the illustrations, only 4*