Walter Richard Sickert A.R.A. (British, 1860-1942)
Girl on a bed sewing signed 'Sickert.' (lower left) oil on canvas 38.5 x 31 cm. (15 1/4 x 12 1/4 in.) Painted circa 1911-12
PROVENANCE: With The Mayor Gallery, London Acquired by the father of the present owner circa 1950 Private Collection, U.K.
Sickert's figure subjects featuring a clothed man and a nude woman, several given the 'Camden Town Murder' title, influenced both his contemporary and posthumous reputation as a painter of shocking dramas. This assessment is overstated. His subject matter embraced landscapes, music halls and theatres, portraits and intimate figure subjects. Most of his figure scenes reflect moments of everyday, intimate life: the two-figure scenes express squabbles, tedium or tenderness rather than violence; the single figures quiet domesticity rather than sexual provocation. A woman seated on her bed sewing was a subject which Sickert found especially appealing. Naturalistic, requiring no elaborate presentation or framework, it satisfied Degas's precept of observing his subject as if looking through a keyhole. In each case the woman pictured is utterly absorbed in her task and oblivious of her audience. However, the nature of that task is not easily deciphered.
Turning to the present painting, does it indeed portray a woman sewing? If not, what else might she be doing with the scrap of orange stuff she is holding; is she knitting; could she be looking in her reticule? Other paintings on this theme have been misinterpreted, most poetically by Virginia Woolf. In her elegant review of a Sickert exhibition at Agnews in 1933, Mrs Woolf wove a narrative around Yvonne which, like the present painting, shows a woman in a short shift, black shoes and stockings, eyes downcast, concentrating on a scrap of something she is holding in her hands:
Do you remember the picture of the girl sitting on the edge of her bed half naked? Perhaps it is called Nuit d'Amour. Anyhow, the night is over. The bed, a cheap iron bed, is tousled and tumbled; she has to face the day, to get her breakfast, to see about the rent. As she sits there with her night-gown slipping from her shoulders, just for a moment the truth of her life comes over her; she sees in a flash the little garden in Wales and the dripping tunnel in the Adelphi where she began, where she will end, her days. (Walter Sickert: A Conversation, Hogarth Press, 1934, p.15).
The finished version of this subject reveals that far from contemplating a destitute life on the streets, the girl is doing a piece of crochet work (Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006, cat.no.463). A painting of about 1912, which represents a woman in a leather arm chair, has long been known as Girl Reading while its preparatory drawing is called The Newspaper. Both represent a woman doing embroidery within a frame (Op.Cit, cat.no.388). The sitter might even be Sickert's wife Christine, an accomplished embroideress whose work included a tunicle used at the Coronation of George VI in 1937. A beautifully precise drawing of a woman en déshabillé seated on a bed (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Op.Cit cat.no.467), like Yvonne, has an authentic Sickert title. It is inscribed 'Home Life', suggesting that Sickert cherished the intimate domesticity of this subject.
The present work, hitherto unknown to me, may be the first of Sickert's paintings on the theme. The model in this tender and intimate painting also figures in Woman with Ringlets of c.1911 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge;Op.Cit cat.co.381). The dating of Girl Sewing to 1911 is substantiated by its style and handling, a year when Sickert conducted bold experiments designed to develop a looser and leaner paint surface. He strove to get rid of the clogged impasto of recent years while retaining a varied and broken touch. He eschewed narrative in favour of an intense focus on the model in front of him, often presented in an unexpected, even quirky, manner. His colours lightened, to embrace ochres, greens, pinks deepening to carmine, rusty orange, creams and browns. These qualities of touch, colour and style are the essence of Girl Sewing.
We are grateful to Dr. Wendy Baron for compiling this catalogue entry.